Rhodiola is a member of the stonecrop family, known for its fleshy leaves and hardy nature - a characteristic they share with the related sedums. It is at home in mountainous regions throughout Eurasia. In Europe, it can be found at about 2500 msl, an altitude at which few plants can survive. In the Himalaya, it climbs even higher, to an elevation of about 3500-5000msl.
The root has a golden-yellow skin, which has given rise to its alternative name, ’Golden Root’. But beneath the outer skin the root is pinkish in colour, and has a rose-like scent, alluded to in its species name.
Although Diosocorides had mentioned Rhodiola in his Herbal, ‘De Materia Medica’, which dates back to about AD 50-70, the plant has not been widely used in Central European herbal medicine. (The related Houseleek was more common and more frequently used). Its remote habitat and scarcity meant that it was difficult to obtain, and supplies were uncertain. Its use in folk medicine was, however, very much established in Scandinavia, Siberia, as well as in the Himalayan regions of Asia, where it is more common.
In Chinese medicine, Rhodiola is known as Hong Jing Tian, which translates as ‘Red’ Heavenly View’ alluding to its color and its growing range in the high mountains. In TCM, its character is described as ‘cool, dry and bitter’. It is said to have an affinity with the liver, and the lungs, which is why it is used as a blood tonic, and to balance the yin and yang energies of the human body. It is considered a useful remedy to treat inflammatory conditions of the lungs. As a blood tonic, it is used to boost endurance, and stamina in times of stress. Modern western herbal medicine values it as an ‘adaptogen’, a class of tonics that affect the endocrine system in such a way as to adjust the homeostasis of the body when it has become unbalanced due to physical or mental stress.
The fleshy leaves are used externally, much like Aloe vera, to treat burns, and inflammatory skin conditions.
Rhodiola is nothing if not resilient, choosing its ecological niche in some of the harshest environments on earth. Thus, it can be used as an agent of resilience, imparting its strength and endurance to those that are taxed by mental exhaustion and fatigue. It is also said to bring restful sleep and to disempower the demons of nightmares.
Rose root, Hong Jing Tian