Atop Seminsky Pass in Central Siberia's Altai Mountains, my companions and I were cold, wet and wind-whipped. Still, we stood in awe of a couple dozen wild horses, happily munching on Rhaponticum carthamoides, an adaptogen used by woodsmen and athletes alike. R. carthamoides was just one of several promising botanicals I discovered while herb hunting in Siberia.
Siberia, with its sprawling nature and abundant medicinal plants, stands as a likely future source of botanicals for the world market. Just as India and China both export tons of botanicals each year, Siberia will also prove a rich source for healing plants.
I went to Siberia to understand the range and scope of the country's botanicals. The Altai Republic offers probably the best developed botanical infrastructure in all of Siberia, and thus was ideal for my purposes.
My traveling companions Marat Khamzin and Vadim Kolpakov own Russian Natural Products, a diverse herbal company in the city of Novosibirsk. They kindly took me around Altai, introducing me to the area's medicinal plants. I also met key botanical scientists, traditional healers, herbal traders, growers and gatherers.
Siberia's majestic beauty was striking. Great rivers rushed swift and wide, hawks wheeled in the sky and the air smelled fresh and sweet. Leather-skinned horsemen tended herds of cattle and sheep. Grand mountain slopes with pine and birch forests rose around us as we wound our way through pristine valleys. Along the road, we saw small stands where locals sell various herbal teas and preparations.
In Novosibirsk, home to 1.5 million people, I saw firsthand Siberia's dedication to its native plants at the Central Siberian Botanical Garden. Funded by the Russian government, the garden houses more than 10,000 plant species, of which approximately 400 are medicinal.
The director, Vyacheslav Sedelnikov, briefed me on dozens of valued regional herbs, many with significant research to support them. "We need to translate this work in order to share with the rest of the world scientific community," he says.
According to Sedelnikov, there are about 2,000 medicinal plants in Siberia. "We have studied our botanicals very deeply," he says. "There is an enormous supply of plant medicines in this part of the world."
On Seminsky Pass we learned about R. carthamoides. As a traditional remedy, the botanical has been used to allay fatigue and speed recovery from illness. Research conducted in Russia and Eastern Europe indicates the root may help improve memory and learning, and increase working capacity of tired skeletal muscles. Because the plant contains a sterol called 20-hydroxyecdysone, which enhances muscle tissue production, it may possess anabolic properties.
As our guide Yevgeney, an herb hunter from a nearby valley, led us over the frigid pass and down into a series of valleys, he spoke about rhaponticum. "It gives you great strength and energy. It will help you to endure harsh conditions," he says. "It has a lot of life. I know people who have survived being trapped in blizzards because of rhaponticum."
We eventually came to a rocky meadow where Rhodiola rosea was abundant. R. rosea, also known as golden root, is prized by the locals and has 35 years of research supporting it. The rose-scented root is used to enhance energy, relieve stress, boost immunity, promote stamina and mitigate mental cloudiness. Russian researchers classify rhodiola as an adaptogen for its ability to help people cope with stress.
Chaga is another botanical commonly used in Siberia. This fungus, Inonotus obliquus, grows on birch trees in Siberia, Scandinavia and North America. It is abundant—approximately 350 to 500 tons can be harvested annually in Siberia without damaging the supply. Chaga is best known as an anti-cancer agent; it is used to inhibit tumor growth and shrink tumors, but it also has novel blood glucose lowering properties. The Medical Academy of Science in Moscow approved chaga for public use against cancer in 1955.
After a day in the mountains, we were more than happy to reach the car, where we blasted the heat and passed a bottle of vodka infused with rhodiola and rhaponticum to revive ourselves from the hike.
Siberia's Great Healer
In the town of Gorno-Altaisk, we met with Siberian herbal healer and author Uri Vladimirovich. At 77, Vladimirovich moves more slowly than he used to. In his modest apartment, assistants help him package the herbs he still collects by hand while hiking the Altai region.
"My grandmother lived deep in the taiga, the forest," Vladimirovich says. "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. She would take me into the woods to gather plants. Then later in my career as a geologist, I traveled far and wide for my work. Everywhere I went, I learned about plants and collected them."
Vladimirovich showed us many herbal formulas he prepared for his patients. "[My patients] come from all over Russia, and even from Europe," he says. "They are sick, and they hear about me, and they come, and I help them. Nature provides whatever we need to be healthy and alive."
Siberia's bounty of herbs may prove helpful in soothing the ills of many around the world.
Chris Kilham is an author, medicine hunter and educator.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 106, 108