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Alaska is Growing a Plant the Soviet Military Used in Secret Experiments

Golden root, or Rhodiola rosea, is also popular in Siberian folk medicine

Rhodiola rosea (George McCarthy/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Alaska manages to grow some of the largest produce in the country, thanks to their long days of summer sun. However, coaxing most crops to grow in such a short season is a challenge. But now, the state is growing plants specially adapted to the north, including a plant called Rhodiola rosea, a succulent from Siberia, reports Sarah Laskow for Atlas Obscura. But before it became cultivated in alaska, the Rhodiola was a military secret secret. 

Folk traditions hold that Rhodiola, also called "golden root" and "rose root" fights depression, treats stress and works as an aphrodisiac (especially for women). Dwellers of the Arctic and the Altai Mountains in Siberia enjoy extracting the plants’ roots in tea to boost energy. Then, in the 1940s, Russians learned of the root’s alleged powers from native people and started studying the plant scientifically. Laskow writes:

“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 “Most of what was done back then was unpublished and hidden in drawers in Moscow.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.” She and other investigators have confirmed that cosmonauts in the country's space program have also experimented with Rhodiola.

More recently, U.S. scientists have started investigating Rhodiola. They found some evidence that it can increase the lifespan of flies, worms and yeast. While that work is far from telling scientists whether humans would benefit as well, the results were striking. "Nothing quite like this has been observed before," Mahtab Jafari, of the University of California, Irvine, told a reporter for The Siberian Times. He was part of the group that did the work, which they published in PLOS One.

Real proof will have to wait for better studies in humans. However, Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, figured that even if the evidence wasn’t perfect, people would be interested in buying Rhodiola extracts. And Alaska would be the perfect place to get a head start on growing the plants. “It’s actually an environment that the plant wants to grow in, as opposed to everything else we grow in Alaska,” he told Laskow. “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."

Right now, only about five acres of Rhodiola have been planted.  The herb already fetches a higher price per acre than other crops, such as potatoes. If new studies show some measurable effects — even if the plant just boosts energy — then so much the better for Alaska’s potential Rhodiola farmers.

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