Alaska's next big crop will be ... rhodiola? These farmers and researchers hope so.

Some Alaska farmers and researchers have high hopes for a plant you may never have even heard of.

With green-blue succulent leaves and bright yellow flowers, rhodiola rosea is right at home in cold climates, and since about 2009, more Alaska farmers and hobbyists have started growing and experimenting with it.

Some think it has potential to be the next big thing in Alaska agriculture.

Rhodiola could be one of the most valuable crops in Alaska once it's growing on at least 200 acres of land, said Stephen Brown, a professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Service in Palmer.

"The interest in it has grown tremendously," Brown said of the crop's potential in the Last Frontier. "It's a very hardy plant."

Proponents of using rhodiola say it can improve energy and stamina. A research paper published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2009 found that it is beneficial in treating depression and might help to slow dementia in the elderly.

Once planted, rhodiola is relatively easy to grow, Brown said. The root is the main part used medicinally and it's harvested about every five years. Once dried, it can be made into tea or put into capsules.

But rhodiola has a way to go before it's widely grown in Alaska. One issue, Brown said, is that no one wants to really jump into cultivating the plant on a large scale, instead opting for a half- or quarter-acre.

Right now, he estimates that rhodiola is growing on about 25 to 30 acres of land in the state, in Delta Junction, Nome, the Matanuska-Susitna valley area, the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere.

A few years ago, people interested in the plant formed a farmers co-op here called Alaska Rhodiola Products.

"There's no playbook yet on how to grow rhodiola," said Dr. Petra Illig, who formalized the co-op in 2010. She managed it until last year. "Farmers in Alaska struggle so much growing stuff that doesn't want to grow here. So here's an Arctic herb that has potential benefits, and that's what motivated me to start the co-op."

Rhodiola's hardiness is what attracted Delta Junction farmer Frank Borman in the first place — the possibility that it might flourish in an environment where so many crops flop.

"Farming in Alaska is tough," he said. "To be able to market it and be able to make this work, we do need a lot of growers, not just garden growers who are gonna grow at half an acre."

He put 2,600 plants in the ground for the first time in 2009 and harvested for the first time in 2014.

"I certainly haven't given up yet," he said, "but I certainly haven't made any money."

The key to the plant's potential in Alaska lies in the fact that it's naturally suited to cold climates. The crop — also called "golden root" and "arctic root" — grows at high elevations in the Arctic and throughout mountain regions in Europe and Asia, according to the article from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Al Poindexter, owner of Anchor Point Greenhouse, has 10 greenhouses where he grows rhodiola along with vegetables and ornamental plants. He has at least 50,000 rhodiola plants in the ground over about five acres, he said, and has noticed that interest in the plant in Alaska is growing.

"We are slowly gaining more people who are interested," he said, adding that he knows of a few people who started growing the crop for the first time last year. "The reason cultivating it is starting to be the up-and-coming thing is because wild harvesting is pretty much decimating the wild plants. Russia has already put it on an endangered list."

Poindexter describes rhodiola as "a plant you can't kill." That might attract people who aren't as familiar with growing. Right now, he estimates there are about 10 farmers in the state who are "really actively farming" the crop, along with some smaller-scale hobbyists.

"The challenge is to keep everybody interested and persevere," he said. "It's not a one-year, get-rich-quick deal. It's a 10- to 20-year deal."

Illig wants to move beyond the work of the co-op. She launched a company called Alaska Rhodiola Enterprises to morph from "this loosey-goosey co-op thing to more of a commercialized plan and business model." She started selling the plant last year and now sells it online as well as at Natural Pantry in Anchorage and All About Herbs in the Valley.

There isn't a great way to track demand for rhodiola, Illig said, but she sells the dried root for about $25 per pound to nutraceutical companies on the East Coast. It's used around the world.

"The big market for rhodiola up to this point has always been China, Russia and Europe," said Poindexter, "and now Americans are starting to wake up and discover the herb."

Brown, Illig and others are studying how best to cultivate and process the plant. Much more research is still needed to understand exactly how the plant works and what it does.

Rhodiola was a "Soviet military secret for years and years," thought to enhance physical and mental performance, Brown said.

He uses rhodiola personally to help improve his performance during marathons. When he uses it, he said, it's easier for him to push past the burnout that usually comes near the tail end of the run.

Uncertainties about the plant's properties and uses aren't keeping farmers from giving it a try.

"I'm still optimistic about it," said Borman, in Delta Junction. "I'm still going to grow more next year."

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.