As a medicine hunter, I travel the world in search of cures, plant-based therapeutics for a variety of health needs. About six times per year, I plan a research trip, usually to some far-flung land. My investigations in the field have led to heightened awareness of a variety of beneficial plants such as kava and maca and noni and tamanu, which are now popular herbal supplements, and to some candidates for new drug development.
Believing that Siberia, with its immense wealth of botanical riches, is the new medicinal frontier, I have conducted research there on a couple of occasions. Siberia is 80% the size of the United States, with regional diversity ranging from scenic mountains to tundra. The area I was headed to, central Siberia, is home to the Altay, a 100,000 square mile region of mountains, rushing rivers, and over 3,000 lakes. The Altay is also a primary collection area for rhodiola rosea, also known as "golden root." A very well studied adaptogen, rhodiola enhances immune function, protecting overall health and well-being. Its anti-stress and fatigue-fighting properties make it one of the most popular botanicals in all of Siberia. In Europe and the U.S., clinical use of rhodiola rosea shows benefit in intractable psychiatric cases, especially when the condition includes mental fatigue. The root extract stimulates brain function, and improves concentration and mental work capacity. Despite a broad body of science on rhodiola rosea (most of it in Russian), the plant and its benefits remain generally unknown in the west. Yet because of its extraordinary benefits to health, rhodiola rosea deserves to be far better known and used here. That's part of my job, to translate traditional herbal knowledge and foreign science into information that people in the west can embrace and understand.
In The Garden
On my first research trip to Siberia's largest city Novosibirsk, I met my hosts and guides, herbal traders Marat Khamzin and Vadim Kolpakov of Russian Natural Products. Ideal advisors on the medicine trail, the two are well connected with botanical experts and traders all over Siberia. Our first stop was the Central Siberian Botanical Garden. The garden is home to several thousand species of plants, and research projects investigating over 400 medicinal species. Scientists at the Central Siberian Botanical Garden have published over 4,000 scientific papers, and have contributed directly to new drug discovery and development from plants.
In his office, I asked Director Vyacheslav Sedelnikov about the scope of medicinal plants in central Siberia. "We have hundreds of plants used as medicines in this region," he explained. "We have investigated many of these plants for their specific healing compounds, and we also know a great deal about how to maximize their potency. We have also worked extensively on drug development, and we are willing to share our findings." I asked about rhodiola rosea. "Ah yes, well rhodiola rosea is one of the most beneficial plants in Siberia, and very widely used. It is especially good for fighting stress, and it helps people to recover from fatigue and weakness due to illness."
Sedelnikov discussed one of the most intriguing Siberian plant products, the birch fungus Chaga, Inonotus obliquus. Science on chaga shows that it significantly enhances immune function, and inhibits the growth of some tumors. With continued medical investigation, Chaga may in time be further developed into a therapeutic agent for cancer treatment. "We have discovered many plants of potential benefit for cancer," Sedelnikov tells me. "We hope to collaborate more with Western scientists, to further develop these plants." Siberia's Great Healer
Marat and Vadim and I headed off to the Altay region, about 500 kilometers south of Novosibirsk. In the town of Gorno Altaisk, we visited with Siberia's most beloved herbal healer, Uri Vladimirovich. His modest apartment was crammed with fragrant herbs and preparations from one end to the other. "My grandmother lived deep in the taiga, the forest," Uri explained. "She knew all the plants in her area, and she understood how to use them for healing. So when I was a young boy, I learned a lot from her. Then later in my career as a geologist, I travelled far and wide for my work. And everywhere I went, I learned about plants and collected them."
Uri explained to us the healing and restorative powers of a truly odd remedy, mumiya. This fossilized mountain cave sediment is rich in organic compounds and soluble minerals, and is widely regarded as one of the great medicinal agents in all of Russia. At first I thought he was pulling my leg. But in my Siberian travels, every scientist and non scientist alike claimed that mumiya is one of the most invigorating, power-imbuing natural remedies in all of Siberia. This strange material clearly warrants further study.
Uri was quite definitive when I inquired about rhodiola rosea. "That herb is one of the most important, along with Rhaponticum carthamoides. It gives great strength, and it will help you to regain energy. Rhodiola also helps to fight stress. In this way it builds very good health. If you are sick, rhodiola will help you to recover."
Journey to the Source
After several days of travelling the Altay locating medicinal plants, I wanted to hike deep into the mountains to the prime spots where herb hunters collected rhodiola rosea. On an overcast and chilly morning, Marat and Vadim and I set off high up in windblown Semensky Pass, in the company of an herb hunter named Yevgeney. At around 7500 feet, a chill wind and sleet made our hiking cold and wet.
At the top of the pass, we made our way through tundra, with its wet peat and low brush. Eventually we came down into a valley, where Yevgeney pointed out hundreds of rhodiola plants. I was very pleased. It is one thing to read or talk about where valuable plants grow, but quite another thing to travel to the source and see for yourself. There we were, in the mountains of Siberia, surrounded by one of the most beneficial plants in all of Asian traditional medicine.
Yevgeney uprooted a couple of specimens, and I took numerous photographs. When it finally got too cold to linger, we hiked back down to where we had left our car. Once there, we turned on the heater, shed wet boots, and took big slugs of vodka infused with rhodiola rosea and Rhaponticum carthamoides. "It's very important to use the plants," I announced in a professorial tone. We all laughed, from the joke, the vodka, and the relief of being warm.
The New Frontier
Featuring the largest forest on earth, 2000 known medicinal plants, and a good infrastructure for trade, Siberia offers unparalleled medicinal opportunity. In that vast region, healing plants are part and parcel of the lives of virtually every person. It is only a matter of time before other Western researchers recognize the immense medicinal wealth of Siberia. And as for me? I'll go back several times; you can bet on that.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com