Alaska’s latest crop was once a Soviet military secret

Soviet secret Rhodiola rosea
CC BY 2.0 Olaf Leillinger/Wikimedia Commons

Long admired for its beneficial medicinal properties, Alaskan farmers are happy to find that this Siberian herb loves their climate.

While we may not think of Alaska as an agricultural hotspot, grow things they do, and in fact farmers there manage to raise some of the country’s largest produce thanks to all that summer sunlight. But the growing season is short and many crops there are forced to fit into the specific demands of the clime. What to do? Find plants that are specifically suited to the north, of course.

One such plant that has recently proven keen to the climate is a Siberian succulent called Rhodiola rosea. Also known as "golden root" and "rose root," the herb has been used for ages as a natural remedy for depression, stress and as a libido enhancer. In the Arctic and the Altai Mountains of Siberia, the roots of the plant are used to make an energy-boosting tea.

But it was in the 1940s when Rhodiola got its close-up, although it was clandestine in nature. The Russian government learned of its folk-tradition powers and took it to the lab.

“It was considered a Soviet military secret,” says Dr. Petra Illig, the founder of Alaska Rhodiola Products, a cooperative of Rhodiola farmers. “Most of what was done back then was unpublished and hidden in drawers in Moscow. They used it for the physical and mental performance of their soldiers and athletes.” Reports confirm that even cosmonauts in the country's space program have experimented with the wonder root.

Fast-forward to contemporary times and strip the herb of its Soviet spy mystique and we find that U.S. scientists have been taking a look into Rhodiola as well. A study recently published in PLOS One reveals evidence that it really can increase the lifespan – of flies, worms and yeast, at least. Whether or not that can be applied to human lives is not known, but the results were surprising.

“Nothing quite like this has been observed before," researcher Mahtab Jafari, of the University of California, Irvine, told The Siberian Times.

And while the science showing the implication for humans will have to wait until further research is conducted, the possibilities look promising. Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Alaska, realized that even if the research doesn’t apply specifically to the health effects for humans yet, people would probably still be interested in buying Rhodiola extracts. And Alaska provides the perfect place to grow the herb. “It’s actually an environment that the plant wants to grow in, as opposed to everything else we grow in Alaska,” he said. “It’ll grow in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. It wants our long days. It’s already coming up out of the ground – and the ground’s still frozen."

So far only five acres of Rhodiola have been planted, but what a sensible way to approach agriculture – planting things where they want to grow. California, are you listening? Embracing a native species approach to agriculture, one Soviet secret at a time.

Via Smithsonian Magazine

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