Rhodiola rosea is the botanical name given to the plant by Linnaeus 250 years ago from specimens collected in the Alps of Lapland in his native Sweden. It is also referred to in the botanical literature as Sedum rosea. S. rosea var. roanense, or R. roanensis. Another older synonym is S. rhodiola. It is a member of the sedum family (Crassulaceae). While its home is often given as Russia, it is in fact a plant of widespread distribution. Not only does it occur in cooler regions of Russia—it is also found elsewhere in Europe, Asia, and even North America. It grows in almost all countries of northern Europe and Great Britain, south to the mountains of central Europe in Austria, Switzerland, into the Pyrenees, central Italy, and Bulgaria. In Asia, the plant has an extensive range, from northern Russia down through the mountains of western China into Tibet and northern India. In North America, it grows in Alaska and the Yukon southward through the Rockies to Utah, Nevada, California, and Colorado. Its range jumps eastward to Minnesota, New York (where it’s a state-listed endangered species), Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, and Nova Scotia, and then south to the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Perhaps this plant isn’t so obscure after all.
The plant is highly variable in appearance with various geographical variations. The flowers differ from the closely related Sedums—in R. rosea, they are all unisexual (female and male flowers separate), whereas in other Sedums, flowers are perfect (containing female and male parts in the same flowers), which is why it is sometimes placed in a separate genus, Rhodiola. The stems are erect to ascending, growing to about 12 inches tall. The alternate leaves are flat and oval to elliptical, becoming larger toward the top of the plant. The rootstock, unlike most Sedums, is thick. When cut it has the fragrance of roses, hence the common name roseroot. Flower petals range from yellowish to rose-colored. Rocky mountain material, sometimes classified as S. rosea var. integrifolium, is now placed in a separate species R. integrifolia or S. integrifolium.
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