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Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola rosea by Alain Cuerrier and Kwesi Ampong-Nyarko, eds. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press; 2015. Hardcover, 282 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4398-8840-7. $129.95.

Over the past 35 years, many once-obscure herbs have become well known and gained popularity in the marketplace. Herbs such as echinacea (Echinacea spp., Asteraceae), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens, Arecaceae), turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae), St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum, Hypericaceae), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum, Asteraceae) have become familiar to people worldwide and are readily available. Occasionally, a little-known regional herb will break through and join the ranks of major medicinal plants. In the last decade, maca (Lepidium meyenii, Brassicaceae), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum, Ganodermataceae), holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum, Lamiaceae), cats claw (Uncaria tomentosa and U. guianensis, Rubiaceae), ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, Solanaceae) and the northern circumpolar adaptogen Rhodiola rosea (Crassulaceae; also known as rose root due to the roots odor, which is reminiscent of rose geranium [Pelargonium graveolens, Geraniaceae]) all have gained significant prominence.

One commonality that several of these herbs share is that they are considered to be adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs that enhance the bodys ability to better cope with a wide range of non-specific stressors including psychological, noise, temperature, exercise, or environmentally induced stress. Human and animal research suggests that rhodiola (as well as ashwagandha, holy basil, and reishi) has many of these functions. It is no wonder that in our overly busy, action-packed lives this type of herb would find broad acceptance.

Each of these herbs has a long history of use by native peoples and in traditional systems of medicine. The roots of several species of rhodiola have been used for millennia in traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Russian, Central Asian, and Scandinavian medical practices. Modern clinical, phytochemical, horticultural, animal, and laboratory research on various Rhodiola species is voluminous and, until recently, was scattered throughout many journals and often not written in English. The only two books solely focused on rhodiola were popular books that, while useful for introducing this new herbal medicine to a wider audience, had limitations. The first, Arctic Root (Rhodiola Rosea): The Powerful New Ginseng Alternative by Germano and Ramazanov (Kensington Publishing, 1999), lacked the scientific rigor and depth to be a highly useful text. The second, The Rhodiola Revolution by Brown and Gerbarg (Rodale Books, 2005), is much more informative but is almost 10 years old, written for a lay audience, and focuses solely on medicinal usage of this plant (the authors are psychiatrists who are familiar with rhodiola research and use rhodiola supplements in their clinical practices). For professionals needing an authoritative text, clinicians, phytochemists, herb growers, pharmacognosists, and botanists, the wait is now over.

The editors of this volume are well qualified for this task. Alain Cuerrier, PhD, is a botanist and ethnobotanist who has published widely on the use of plants by native Canadian peoples.1 He also has a special interest in rhodiola and has beautiful specimens growing at the Jardin Botanique de Montréal, with which he is associated. Kwesi Ampong-Nyarko has for many years worked with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development creating the technology and expertise needed to develop commercial cultivation of rhodiola. This has led to a new high-value agricultural product for Canada. Other contributors include Richard Brown, MD, and Patricia Gerbarg, MD, authors of The Rhodiola Revolution, the most comprehensive and best of the popular accounts on rhodiola and an extensive cover story on rhodiola in HerbalGram 56 in 20022; John T. Arnason, PhD, an authority on natural products chemistry and biopharmaceutical sciences; and Alexander Panossian, PhD, and Georg Wikman, two of the worlds leading researchers on adaptogenic plants and the clinically tested proprietary extract Rhodiola SHR-5, and co-authors of numerous clinical trials and related research on rhodiola. (Gerbarg, Arnason, and Panossian are members of the American Botanical Council [ABC] Advisory Board.)

The book is divided into 12 chapters, with in-depth discussions of rhodiola taxonomy, ethnobotany, conservation, phytochemistry, cultivation in Europe, Canada and Alaska, diseases affecting rhodiola, biotechnology, pharmacological activities of the plant, research on Rhodiola SHR-5, the use of rhodiola in psychiatry and medical/herbal practice, its toxicology and safety, and the commercial development of this medicinal herb. No matter which topics you find of interest, the well-written chapters will provide the reader with detailed and up-to-date information, impossible to find in any other single text.

As a clinician, I was immediately drawn to the chapters on ethnobotany, medicinal uses of rhodiola, and its toxicology. Even though I am well acquainted with this herb and its uses, I still found information that was new to me. The use of rhodiola extract in toothpaste to treat gum disease and an adjunctive treatment for ADHD, PTSD, and cancer is not well known. Also of interest was the discussion of the use of rhodiola as a selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) to enhance fertility in women in their 40s for whom in vitro fertilization techniques have failed.

In rose roots far northern habitat, it is a slow-growing and overharvested plant. As this botanical gains popularity and commercial success, it is imperative that large-scale cultivation replace wild-harvested roots. While I have never grown this herb, the chapters on cultivation of rhodiola (which include common diseases of the plant, soil requirements and amendments, methods to enhance crop yields, effective propagation practices, and proper harvesting and drying techniques) are a detailed primer for the successful growing of a high-quality medicinal product.

My only criticisms of this excellent book are minor. I would have liked a few color photographs of healthy fresh and dried rhodiola roots (there is a color picture of a diseased root). A chapter on the pharmacognosy of rhodiola with macroscopic and microscopic details would have been highly useful for organoleptic analysis of dried rhodiola, helping manufacturers to determine whether they actually have R. rosea or another related species. In addition, a chapter on the human and animal research that has been conducted on other rhodiola species (R. crenulata, R. imbricata, R. kirilowii, etc.) would have been appropriate, as these studies are only briefly mentioned in the ethnobotany section. My last issue, one that is common with scientific publishers, is with the cost of the book ($129.95). The publisher offers a 10% discount on the title if purchased from their website (the same discount applies to ABC members when purchased via the ABC eStore), but it still is rather expensive for the researcher or clinician who does not have the resources or funding to purchase the book.

It is always possible to do more, to add another last-minute reference or additional chapter, or to have another authority to look over the proofs. The nature of book publishing is there are deadlines, budget constraints, and sometimes word limits. Even with the reality that is commercial publishing, this book succeeds in almost every way and will be an essential text for anyone wanting to use, research, or grow this remarkable plant.

David Winston, RH(AHG)Herbal Therapeutics Research LibraryDavid Winstons Center for Herbal StudiesWashington, New Jersey


  1. Downing A, Cuerrier A, Hermanutz L, Courtenay C, Fells A, Siegwart Collier L. Community of Nain, Labrador: Plant Uses Booklet. Montréal, Quebec: Institut de Recherche en Biologie Végétale; 2013.
  2. Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Rhodiola: A phytomedicinal review. HerbalGram. 2002;56:40-52. Available at: