If you’ve ever heard me talk about herbs, you’ll know I usually also talk about the Herbs I Don’t Talk About. Some, like Valerian, are on the list because they are super popular but not appropriate for many people. Others make the list because of actual or potential risk of overharvest leading to extirpation or even extinction. Rhodiola rosea is one of those.
People love love love their Rhodiola. It’s in a class of medicinal plants that support the adrenal glands, which help us deal with acute and chronic stress. Such plants, known as adaptogens, have long been subject to overharvesting. (See the history of American ginseng.) It also is used with great effect for mood issues including anxiety, depression and ADHD. It’s been among the top 40 herbal supplements in the last decade.
But despite its many virtues, the plant’s vulnerability is such that I do not use it personally or in my practice, and have long argued that it should not be used from wild sources at all. One of the great things about herbal medicine is we have so many ways to help people, we can almost always find other plants to do the trick.
After years of screaming to the rooftops that ethical herbalists should not be using Rhodiola, I’m happy to report that new protections and advances in cultivation efforts bring it closer to being a sustainable choice.
Rhodiola at risk
Rhodiola is also known as arctic root (because it grows in the Arctic and subArctic), roseroot (because the roots smell like roses) and Arctic rose (both). And these common names offer clues about the risks this popular plant faces.
First, it’s a root. That means harvesting generally kills the plant.
Second, it grows in harsh climates. That means it takes a long time to get to harvestable size, so populations need a long time to recover from harvest.
But there’s more.
Turns out Rhodiola has female and male forms, and both are needed to grow new plants. Folks who wild harvest Rhodiola may not look for (or know how to look for) the different sexes. And population studies are now finding an excess of male plants relative to female ones, further risking reproduction. (Thanks to Alexis Durham of HerbPharm’s director of botanical affairs, from whose 2022 Traditional Roots Conference presentation on sustainability in herbalism these points are taken.)
That’s a lot of doom and gloom, which I present so you’ll fully appreciate the good news: In November 2022 was approved to be added to the list of plants protected under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Starting in May 2023, there will be strict trade controls of Rhodiola roots harvested in the wild. The move will not effect seeds, pollen or products already packaged for retail. It should not effect farmers cultivating Rhodiola.
This move has been a long time in coming, and growers in northern latitudes have been working for years to cultivate medicinally active Rhodiola plants.
It’s a challenging plant to grow. The roots take up to 7 years to mature, and most cultivated sources haven’t had the full range of medicinal constituents found in their wild counterparts.
But more good news: Some growers are having success, and their roots are starting to reach a scale where consumers can find sustainable, cultivated and even organic Rhodiola.
Nearly all Rhodiola available commercially right now is wild harvested, so the new CITES protections will likely restrict supply in the near term until high-quality cultivation expands. Much of this work is happening in Canada and Alaska.
So far I’ve found just two companies that offer organic, cultivated Rhodiola that hits all the biochemical marks: HerbPharm, which sources from Canada, and Mountain Rose Herbs, which sources from the US. Hopefully more will join them soon.
To use Rhodiola ethically for yourself or your clients/patients, keep an eye on your sources. If the label or website doesn’t specify that the herb is organically cultivated, assume that it is wild harvested — often with little attention to sustainability. Urge your sources to find cultivated alternatives, and consider giving your business to those that do.
I still don’t see a need to use Rhodiola in my practice, given that there are so many more sustainable options to achieve similar effects. (Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is my go-to.) But I’m very excited that it’s starting to be ethical to consider Rhodiola as a possibility.
American Herbal Products Association announcement about Rhodiola CITES listing.
Bauman, Hannah et. al. Plants in Peril: Climate Crisis Threatens Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. HerbalGram #124.
Brinckmann, J. A., Cunningham, A. B., & Harter, D. E. V. (2021). Running out of time to smell the roseroots: Reviewing threats and trade in wild Rhodiola rosea L. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 269, 113710. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2020.113710
Brown, Richard et. al. Rhodiola rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview. HerbalGram, #56.
Castle, Lisa Marie et. al. Ranking Tool Created for Medicinal Plants at Risk of Being Overharvested in the Wild. Ethnobotany Letters, vol. 5, 2014.
Center for Biological Diversity. Medicinal Plants at Risk.
Dewhurst, Donna. Rhodiola is All the Rage In Alaska. Alaska Magazine, Sept. 2021.
Kayaani Sisters Council. Respectful Harvesting Guidelines
Kilham, Chris. Rhodiola Harvest in the Mountains of Heaven’: The Uighur Traders of Xinjiang. HerbalEGram #6. June 2021.
Manget, Luke. Ginseng and the Fate of the Commons. United Plant Savers, 2020.
United Plant Savers Species at Risk.