Rose root (Sedum rosea) belongs to the Crassulaceae family and is most abundant on bare mountains, often well above the tree line. Thus, it is found in Europe both in the Scandinavian mountains and in the Alps. It is most commonly found in Iceland, but it is also rare on the bare cliffs of Bohuslän. It can even grow on the edges of melting glaciers, where it can withstand the most varying temperatures. Temperature fluctuations of up to 20 degrees Celsius per day are something it is specially adapted to handle. And this ability to adapt to rapid changes in the surrounding environment is something that has made it interesting to humans.

Rose root is a flowering plant with succulent, i.e., thick, water-storing blue-green leaves that grow abundantly around the one to three-decimeter tall stem. Really large specimens can reach half a meter. The yellow flowers sit at the top in a collective crown on the sturdy stem. Rose root is dioecious, meaning either the plant bears only female flowers with pistils, or it has only stamens. At the ground level, the brown root often protrudes. Rose root is a perennial plant, and the root grows with each growing season and can become 3-4 decimeter long, growing horizontally just below the surface layer. If the root is broken off, a delightful rose scent is emitted from the white interior.

Ancient folk knowledge
Most people who have lived near the habitats of rose root have discovered some of its many properties, and therefore it has been used as part of the diet or has been taken when one has had ailments – and this since time immemorial. It was so valuable that it was the only plant alongside angelica that found its way down to the Southern European herbal apothecaries. It is even mentioned in ancient Greece, where it had dual uses. The yellow flowers could be used to dye fabric, and the root itself was prescribed by ancient doctors to those who were tired. It was often referred to as Rodia Riza, which translated means rose root.

Good for hangovers and much more
For the Vikings in the north, it was also a remedy taken to better endure hard trials and to alleviate the hangover acquired after a mead feast. For the nomadic peoples of Siberia, it was equally important during long, exhausting hunting trips. Rose root provided strength and also helped the body to better retain heat. The reputation of rose root had also reached south of Siberia to the scientifically interested Chinese who made long expeditions to collect or trade for rose root. For the Chinese, it was primarily regarded for its effects on humans as it strengthened sexual desire and acted as an excellent aphrodisiac. The Inuit primarily coveted the vitamin C-rich leaves and therefore ate them as a vegetable after boiling them. It was also the leaves’ ability to disinfect and aid in wound healing that made it appreciated in Iceland. Here it grew abundantly across the island and was naturally frequently used since the Vikings colonized Iceland in the 800s. Here it was cultivated, as in Norway and Sweden, on the turf roofs of houses, then to protect against fire.

Protestantism places more trust in authority than in the people…
The knowledge that existed and the uses that rosenrot had during the Middle Ages, when Catholicism was the dominant religion, meant that it was also described and appreciated in many books. With the advent of Protestantism in Northern Europe, there was also a new view of science. It was the noble knowledge that had close ties with central power that mattered. The old folk beliefs and knowledge were increasingly despised and rejected. Much of the genuine knowledge about rose root would be lost in Northern Europe.

…but Linnaeus appreciated rosenrot
Sweden’s most internationally known scientist came to be Carl von Linné. He also became an admirer of rose root when he discovered its abundance during his travels in Lapland. He would classify it and gave it the name Rhodiola rosea. In one of his works, in 1755, he noted that rose root helps against headaches. He observed that it was also sold in Swedish pharmacies, but that it first took long detours. Norwegians who had crossed over to the Swedish mountains had picked it, dried it, and sold it on to Southern Europe, from where it was later imported to Swedish pharmacies. Here, Linné suggested that initiatives should be taken among the population in the north so that they could provide a fresher product to Swedish pharmacies. Linné himself had planted rose root in his experimental gardens where they studied plants that could be economically interesting.

Rose root gets confirmed in the Soviet Union
Rose root would receive renewed scientific interest only 200 years later. In the Soviet Union, it was noted that biotechnical research and development, including pharmaceuticals, lagged far behind that in the West, especially in the USA. Catching up would be difficult – so other ways were sought to acquire knowledge that could also be applied. Essentially, information was collected about all the folk knowledge that existed about various herbs. Researchers traveled primarily in the Asian parts of the Soviet Union, gathering and recording different recipes where medicinal herbs were used. The project began in the 1960s and was driven by Israel Brekhman. The project was also extensive. More than a hundred institutions and universities were involved to map and investigate various active substances from the people’s herbs in a laboratory environment. As early as 1947, another Russian researcher, Lasarev, had discovered a synthetic substance ’dibasol’ which both increased performance and strengthened the immune system against infections. He classified the substance as an adaptogen.

The concept of adaptogen
With the concept of adaptogen, he referred to a substance that can increase the body’s ability to adapt and thus its resistance, and that its effect should be general and not localized to a specific organ. The effect should be normalizing both immediately and with longer-term use. It should be free from side effects, both in the short and long term. With these strict specifications, the Russians worked through hundreds of interesting herbs. Most did not measure up, but eventually, they had eleven decent candidates, and among these were three interesting plants that met the criteria of a true adaptogen; these were Russian root, schisandra, and rose root.

Proven effects
The scope and diversity of the Russian research on rosenrot are nothing short of impressive. The essence is that rose root has the following positive effects:

  • Increases mental ability
  • Counteracts fatigue
  • Reduces and completely eliminates headaches and sleep problems
  • Calms nervousness, anxiety, and depression
  • Increases sexual desire and has a positive impact on impotence
  • Normalizes blood pressure
  • Normalizes blood sugar
  • Reduces high cholesterol levels
  • Helps and accelerates the body’s healing process
  • Improves hearing
  • Animal studies show extended lifespan
  • Protects against UV radiation
  • Increases the body’s resistance to colds and flu

Thus, the Russian research has confirmed everything that folk knowledge already knew – but how can a single plant have such a universal effect?

Acts inside the cell’s nucleus
The answer lies in the definition of what an adaptogen is. A substance that normalizes the internal life of a cell to the normal, optimal level. This means that there are substances in rose root that ensure the cell constantly adjusts its processes to the natural level. So, if one is exposed to stress with high levels of stress hormones, the adaptogens act in the opposite direction and slow down the activity. Conversely, if the cell is running on low energy due to a temporary lack of sugar, adaptogens can still enable the cell to work naturally, i.e., reducing fatigue. It’s no wonder that astronauts who were to stay in space on the MIR stations were provided with rose root to counteract the unnatural environment in the spacecraft. It strengthened their endurance and memory capacity. Once, they also took quails up to the space shuttle. As a test, some of the birds were also given rose root. Those that received the supplement started laying eggs just two days after the space journey, while the others needed twelve days to normalize and lay eggs.

cAMP is affected
The molecular mechanisms of action behind the normalizing effects of the active substances in rose root are also beginning to be understood. In the cell nucleus, the molecule cAMP (cyclic Adenosine MonoPhosphate) plays a very important role in the feedback mechanism that controls how many RNA molecules should be produced based on the actual genetic material, the DNA. Substances in rosenrot can bind to cAMP, thereby partially nullifying its effect. This results in the cell being adjusted to a more harmonious production of RNA and proteins, which means that the whole cell, indeed the whole organism, makes fewer and smaller deviations from its own biological equilibrium. This molecular-level phenomenon makes it very easy to understand why rose root is exceptionally good at handling stress situations. Taking rose root largely neutralizes the body’s stress reactions, and the production of stress hormones becomes much less pronounced than otherwise.

Folk knowledge yields no profit – only health
The fact that rose root carries fantastic molecules was an ancient folk knowledge, now supported by numerous interesting research results – but it seems as if today’s folk knowledge about rose root is much less, despite science being able to prove its miracles. But it’s probably the same old story – valuable molecules found in a plant that one can grow at home in the garden can neither be patented nor make a profit from – and therefore, people should preferably not have this knowledge – but instead rely on side effect-prone drugs like Viagra, Cyprexa, and Synarel.

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