Brinckmann JA, Cunningham AB, Harter DEV. Running out of time to smell the roseroots: Reviewing threats and trade in wild Rhodiola rosea L. J Ethnopharmacol. April 2021;269:113710. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2020.113710.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea, Crassulaceae) root is used for ethnomedicines in the Arctic regions and as a traditional medicine in Mongolia, Russian Federation, and Europe. Nevertheless, its wild populations are being commercially exploited with the global rise in demand for extracts made from it, as well as for its compound, salidroside. Other threats to R. rosea include increased risk of pollination failure, climate change impacts, and grazing and trampling by livestock. Used in the cosmetic and nutraceutical industries, research has shown that R. rosea is effective for fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, and viral respiratory illness. This study aims to evaluate the conservation status, harvesting and trade levels, current state of farming, and evidence of substitution of other Rhodiola species to better understand how to conserve this species.
For current level of cultivation and information on impacts of wild harvest at national and regional levels, published studies were reviewed. Production and trade data were acquired from published reports, trade data bases, consultation with farmers, processors of extracts, trade experts, and government and news reports of illegal harvesting and smuggling. Searches with terms translated into languages of main countries that R. rosea is harvested, traded, and used were performed through Google Scholar, LinkedIn, and ResearchGate. Company data were accessed through Zauba Technologies & Data Services Private Limited and government databases. Visits to medicinal plant trading centers and international trade shows were performed, and interviews were carried out. Conservation, occurrence, legal, and regulatory status were all obtained from governmental databases.
Research revealed ethnomedicinal uses of R. rosea, including treatment for colds, toothaches, fatigue, endurance, genitourinary conditions, nervous disorders, and as a traditional food by indigenous people throughout the arctic region. R. rosea contains 150 identified bioactive compounds, including rosavins (rosin, rosarin, and rosavin) and phenylethane derivatives (tyrosol and salidroside); these compounds are considered responsible for pleiotropic effects of R. rosea on the neuroendocrine and immune systems. Forms of R. rosea found in trade include the cut, dried rhizome and root; powdered rhizome and root, dry extract, liquid extract, and dry extract in solid dosage forms.
R. rosea originated in alpine southern Siberia and is now distributed across the northern hemisphere between lower-Arctic to high-temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. The plant grows in a wide variety of habitats and soil types, and it is a long-lived perennial. The species is dioecious, which increases its vulnerability as both the male and female plant needs to be available for pollination. In Scotland, it was found that ratio of male to female plant was 1.56:1 and that the male plant had higher medicinal value. R. rosea is threatened with extinction in Germany, regionally endangered in Austria, and critically endangered in Czechia. In the Russian Federation, it is considered rare. Due to reports of uncontrolled, large-scale harvesting, the Red Book authorities of the Altai Territory have recently reclassified it with uncertain status, requiring monitoring, and in the neighboring Altai Republic, R. rosea is classified as vulnerable and decreasing. Total population size is not known in the 29 countries where it grows; 10 have regulations for the wild harvest of R. rosea.
Legal export trade was not possible to quantify due to lack of species-specific harmonized system tariff codes assigned to any country. Russia is the main source of wild R. rosea raw material, while China, is a major producer and exporter of Rhodiola species extracts (about 75% of global total). Chinese extraction houses do not always distinguish between the different species, and thus samples purported to contain extract of R. rosea have been found to contain other Rhodiola species, which the authors view as an indicator of scarcity of the genuine article. R. rosea smuggling is a notable issue in Russia and Kazakhstan; Russia restricts harvest and export from certain of its republics and territories, but some, like the Altai Territory, are exempt from the restriction. It was reported that, in the 2000s, 2-3 tons of illegally harvested R. rosea roots were confiscated annually by border patrols, increasing up to over 8 tons seized in 2019. Kazakh border patrols also arrested several groups of R. rosea poachers in 2019 near the border with Xinjiang.
Cultivation efforts are improving but still lacking for the demand of R. rosea. Research to develop and improve methods of R. rosea cultivation has been ongoing for decades in several countries (Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, and others). The Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization, is likely the largest commercial cultivation center. Recent trials in the Ural Mountains have found that success depends on mimicking the growing conditions of wild R. rosea. There have also been successful cultivation trials in the United Kingdom, and in Bulgaria, there was successful propagation by rootstock compared to seeds. Seedlings are available to commercial farms internationally from research centers in northern Europe. R. rosea is also reportedly the most cultivated medicinal plant crop in Moldova.
The authors conclude that R. rosea has wide distribution but is threatened by little to no regulation of large scale and destructive harvesting, risk of pollination failure due to increasing distances between male and female plants as a result of destructive harvest, climate change, and in some cases livestock. The authors recommend that policy makers in the countries where R. rosea grows to monitor and regulate its harvest and export; more research into conservation-oriented methods of sustainable agriculture to support commercial farming operations will help these impacts. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.