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Review of Rhodiola rosea Conservation Status Recommends Monitoring of Wild Populations and Transition to Cultivation


Reviewed: 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 as a traditional medicine in Arctic regions of Europe, North America, and Asia. In the United States, rhodiola has been one of the 40 top-selling herbal dietary supplements in mainstream retail outlets sine 2014. It also is used in the global cosmetics, functional foods, and herbal medicinal products industries. Research suggests that rhodiola is effective for fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, and viral respiratory illnesses. With the global rise in demand for rhodiola extracts, wild populations of rhodiola are being commercially overexploited. Other threats to rhodiola include increased risk of pollination failure, climate change impacts, and grazing and trampling by livestock. This literature review evaluated the plant’s conservation status, harvesting and trade levels, current state of farming, and evidence of substitution with other Rhodiola species to better understand how to conserve this species.

The authors reviewed published studies and information provided by R. rosea farmers to assess the current level of rhodiola cultivation and impacts of wild harvesting at national and regional levels. Production and trade data were acquired from published reports, trade databases, consultation with farmers, processors of extracts, trade experts, and government and news reports of illegal rhodiola harvesting and smuggling. Searches (with terms translated into languages of the main countries where rhodiola is harvested, traded, and used) were performed through Google Scholar, LinkedIn, and ResearchGate. Data on companies involved in the rhodiola trade were accessed through government databases and the data processing company Zauba Technologies & Data Services (Bengaluru, India). The authors also visited medicinal plant trading centers and international trade shows and conducted interviews with various individuals involved in rhodiola trade. Information on conservation, occurrence, and legal and regulatory status were obtained from governmental reports on websites and in databases, as well as hard copies and direct personal communications.

Research revealed diverse medicinal uses for rhodiola, including for colds, toothaches, fatigue, endurance, genitourinary conditions, nervous disorders, and as a traditional food by Indigenous people throughout the Arctic region. According to the authors, at least 150 compounds have been identified from rhodiola, including rosavins (rosin, rosarin, and rosavin) and phenylethane derivatives (salidroside and tyrosol). These compounds are considered primarily responsible for the effects of rhodiola on the neuroendocrine and immune systems. Forms of rhodiola in trade include the dried rhizome and root, powdered rhizome and root, dry extract, liquid extract, and dry extract in solid dosage forms.

Rhodiola rosea is believed to have originated in alpine southern Siberia and is now distributed across the northern hemisphere from the Low Arctic to high-altitude temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. This long-lived perennial grows in a wide variety of habitats and soil types. The species is dioecious (it has male and female reproductive organs in separate plants), which increases its vulnerability, as both the male and female plant need to be available for pollination. In Scotland, the male-to-female plant ratio was found to be 1.56:1, and the male plants had higher levels of rosavin and salidroside.

Rhodiola is threatened with extinction in Germany, regionally endangered in Austria, and critically endangered in Bulgaria, Czechia, and in the Carpathian Mountains region of Ukraine. In Russia, it is classified as rare. Due to reports of uncontrolled, large-scale harvesting, the Commission on the Red Book of the Altai Territory in Siberia recently reclassified rhodiola to an uncertain conservation status, requiring monitoring. In the neighboring Altai Republic, it is classified as vulnerable and declining. Total population size is not known in the 29 known countries where it grows. Ten of these countries have regulations governing the wild harvest of the plant.

Russia is the main source of wild rhodiola raw material, and China is a major producer and exporter of various Rhodiola species extracts (about 75% of the global total). Chinese extraction houses do not always distinguish between different Rhodiola species, and thus samples reported to contain R. rosea extract have been found to contain other Rhodiola species. The authors view this as an indicator of the genuine article’s scarcity.

Rhodiola poaching and smuggling is a notable issue in Russia and Kazakhstan. Russia restricts harvesting and export from some of its republics and territories, but others, like the Altai Territory, are exempt from the restriction. It was reported that, in the 2000s, two to three tons of illegally harvested rhodiola roots were confiscated annually by Russian border patrols, and more than eight tons were seized in 2019. In 2019, Kazakh border patrols also arrested several groups of rhodiola poachers near the border of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China.

Cultivation efforts are improving but still inadequate for the current demand of rhodiola. Research to develop and improve methods of rhodiola cultivation has been ongoing for decades in several countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and others. The Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization, a cooperative of farmers that produces and sells rhodiola raw materials and products, is likely the largest commercial cultivation operation, followed by others situated in Russia, Europe, and Alaska. Recent trials in the Ural Mountains of western Russia have found that cultivation success depends on mimicking the growing conditions of wild rhodiola. Cultivation trials in the United Kingdom also have been successful, and in Bulgaria, propagation by rootstock was found to be more successful than cultivation from seed. Seedlings are available to international commercial farms from research centers in northern Europe. Rhodiola is also reportedly the most-cultivated medicinal plant crop in Moldova.

The authors concluded that rhodiola is widely distributed but threatened by limited or lacking 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 harvesting, climate change, and, in some cases, livestock. The authors recommend that policy makers in countries where rhodiola grows monitor and regulate its harvest and export. More research on conservation-oriented methods of sustainable agriculture to support commercial rhodiola farming operations may help reduce these impacts.