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Rhodiola Rosea: Discover the Traditions of Rhodiola

Find out how countries around the world have used this plant
By Steven Foster
February/March 2002
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Such a widespread plant, valued as a tonic in Russia, is sure to have been used by other cultures—and indeed it has. The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides noticed the plant. This is significant, as his work De Materia Medica served as the basis for Western pharmacy for nearly sixteen centuries after his death. The 1655 John Goodyer translation of Dioscorides’ Greek herbal states, “Rhodia radiz grows in Macedonia being like to Costus, but lighter uneven, making a scent in ye bruising, like that of Roses. It is of good use for ye aggrieved with headache, being bruised and layed on with a little Rosaceum, and applied moist to yet forehead, and ye temples.”

Use as a headache folk remedy persisted in Germany into the early twentieth century. Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stripium commentarii insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), published in 1542, mentions the herb, noting that it was cultivated in German gardens in his day. In later centuries in Europe, it was sold in apothecary shops as “lignum rhodium” and it was recorded as a brain tonic in the early nineteenth century in France. In the 1633 edition of his Herball, John Gerard writes about it under the name rose-woort, or roseroot. “It groweth very plentifully in the North part of England, especially in a place call Ingleborough Fels, neere unto the brookes sides, and not elsewhere that I can as yet finde out. . .There is little extant in writing of the faculties of Rosewoort; but this I have found, that if the root be stamped with the oile of Roses and laid to the temples of the head, it easeth the paine of the head.” Undoubtedly, Gerard had his copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica close at hand.

In Tibet, rhodiola was among the 175 most important traditional drugs, used in at least ten formulas, nine of which were for lung conditions. Used since at least 300 a.d. in Tibet, the root has primarily been used for the treatment of lung disorders, particularly those characterized as “lung-heat” conditions.

In India, the roots are considered refreshing, antiscorbutic (to treat vitamin C deficiency), febrifuge, and a food plant. The roots are pickled, the young leaves and stems are eaten raw, and mature leaves and stems are eaten cooked.

Eskimos also used it as a food plant. The fresh leaves were put into oil to preserve them. Medicinally, a decoction of the flowers (combined with other ingredients) is used to treat stomachache and intestinal discomfort. The ray flowers were eaten as a tuberculosis treatment. In Siberia, indigenous peoples used the root to prevent fatigue and as a pick-me-up for a general disinclination to work.

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