Rhodiola rosea is said to offer a similar boost to energy as ginseng and while it cannot compete with the almost mythical reputation held by ginseng in the US and Asian markets, it may find a niche in Europe for its novelty and European origins.
Since its launch in supplement form this year, Rosenrot capsules have become "the best-selling product in Norway sold through health stores," according to Eystein Storoy, product manager at the Norwegian firm Rosenrot. Most people are buying it for the energy boost, he added.
The company has started a cultivation programme in Norway to ensure a sustained supply of its raw materials and will also test market the product in Germany later this year.
"We have had a lot of good media coverage that has promoted the product as a homegrown alternative to Asian products. It seems that we are digging into the ginseng segment," he added.
Ginseng is however well-established in the herbals marketplace and has significantly greater scientific support than rosenroot. Like ginseng, rosenroot is an adaptogen, traditionally used to increase physical endurance and to treat fatigue, depression, anaemia, impotence and infections. In Asia rosenroot tea was used to treat cold and flu and in Siberian villages, a bouquet of roots is still given to couples prior to marriage to enhance fertility and assure the birth of healthy children.
But despite its long traditional use, and stories of its effects on Russia's athletes and astronauts, much of the scientific literature has been published in Russian and has not been freely available to the international community.
"There are not many clinical data on rhodiola rosea. It seems to have comparable effects to ginseng but for me there is a clear lack of good studies demonstrating these," said Dr Joerg Gruenwald of Phytopharm Consulting.
But he added that "there could be potential if they show that the product is really effective. The market always likes a new story".
In addition, current sales of ginseng are "more or less flat", according to Uwe Meyer, manager of the botanicals division at German plant extracts firm Martin Bauer, and while the herb records sales of about €80 million in Germany alone, the region sees nowhere near the demand in the US, let alone Asia.
In Norway rosenroot is in plentiful supply in the wild and its transfer from the medicines category to food last year has moved the herb from traditional folk medicine to the supplements market.
Samples collected from nearly 100 locations in Norway by the country's crop research organisation Planteforsk have been analysed for their active compounds and compared to other regions in Europe, Norway's plants, growing far north, were found to contain higher levels than elsewhere. Those with the highest actives are now being cultivated in a programme backed by government funding.
"We have put together a document for farmers on how to collect it [the rosenroot] to try not to overdo the harvesting because although it is a very robust plant, in the early 90s in Russia it went on the red list," said Storoy.
The firm also has around 200 hectares in cultivation now. "It is important not only that we don't rob nature but also know that we can go back each year to harvest the plant. This is business for us," he added.
The harvest is expected in between two to four years but until then the company could be under pressure to supply enough raw material. It will produce about 20 tons this year and should manage to increase that to 50 tons next year. But it has also turned down interest from European plant extract producers, hoping to find a reliable supplier of plants with higher active components than those coming from China or Russia.
The extract also has 'big' potential in food, according to Storoy. "We have had questions about using it in cereals and it is also being formulated in a kefir-type product in Norway."
As a raw material, rosenroot is expensive at about 150 kroners (€18) per kilo, increasing 10-fold for the dried plant. In a few years time the company may be able to supply the plant outside its home market.
"I'm not sure we would manage to compete on prices offered by the Chinese. But we're branding hard on Norway and our position in Europe," said Storoy.
There is also new research planned at the plant biocentre at NTNU (the Norwegian University of Science and Technology) to investigate the plant's potential to fight cancer.