Growing Rhodiola

This rose-smelling root herb boosts the body’s circulatory and immune system and helps fight the effects of stress.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: peganum/Flickr

Just off the Olympics, I am reminded about the plant, rhodiola. My second-year herb students were studying it last month, and when we got together to talk about what everyone had discovered I sort of fell in love.

Rhodiola rosea is a plant that grows in mountainous regions. This means it loves the Rockies here in the states and is also found in the mountains of Asia and Europe, having long been revered. In certain mountain villages in Russia, there is a tradition of presenting a bouquet of rhodiola to couples that are about to be married to ensure fertility and good health. I can only presume that these couples don’t just preserve the roots as a keepsake, but know full well how to use this important gift.

Rhodiola is a medium-sized succulent plant related to stone crop and jade plant that produces a beautiful flower that is either pink, yellow or red. The roots are the part of the plant used. In ancient times, Chinese emperors would send men along the trade routes to bring back the “golden roots” for medicine, and rhodiola does indeed have a yellow root. The second part of the plant’s latin name, rosea, provides another clue about it, telling us of the rose scent we can expect to find in both the fresh and the dried root due to the presence of the plant constituent geraniol.

Now, back to the Olympics tie-in. Rhodiola didn’t become well-known in the West until Russian scientists popularized the plant while researching its beneficial effects with Russian cosmonauts and athletes. Rhodiola rosea has been extensively studied since then. It is classed as an adaptogen, a group of plants that tend to have minimal or no side effects when used in proper dosage that improve the body’s response to stress.

Rhodiola is present in formulas for men to support the endocrine system. Studies have also shown the plant to be supportive of the circulatory and immune systems, to be anti-inflammatory, and to be able to increase the capacity for and recover from exercise. Evidence suggests it might be helpful with both blood sugar balance and appropriate cholesterol levels. Like everything else with a long list of benefits, there is evidence that it is helpful in some types of cancer.

The plant is usually combined with other adaptogens in a formula. This is because it is incredibly drying in the body—a little goes a long way. The best supply of rhodiola comes from Russia, and there is a marked difference between this and the supply from China. I would say this speaks most about the types of soil as Rhodiola like lime-based soils. If you decide to grow your own, you can obtain seeds from Strictly Medicinal Seeds [], along with some very helpful advice.

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In my limestone soil here in Ohio, I should be able to grow rhodiola as an annual. I plan to start some this winter to set out in the spring. I’ve chosen a spot that tends to hold a colder microclimate and is in the shade to better mimic its natural habitat. If all goes well, I look forward to digging my own rose-scented roots and adding them to all my day-to-day health formulas.

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