Introduction: Wasabi is a crop native grown commercially and virtually solely– in Japan. It is a crop which grows in areas with fresh, clean cold water, cool climates, and heavy shade– very similar to the landscape and climate of the Southern Appalachians—which also shares many native to Japan. It is a premium crop, fetching prices of $99 per pound in 2009, a price which has risen to $125 per pound by 2012. While various enterprises have attempted to establish various, generally high tech, covered hydroponic, farms outside of Japan, because of import restrictions and protectionism, the plant stock and seeds are difficult to source. When they can be found, they’re expensive which created a stumbling block for an untested, experimental crop for small growers. . We felt it was a crop worth investigating, because of the potential profits successful cultivation could bring to small highland farms, the very conditions which are conducive to growing it are considered lost land for the cultivation of other crops, and because it requires cool, clean running water. We felt that finding a profitable crop, which could be cultivated in other wise non-productive land, would provide an additional incentive for the protection of privately owned highland springs and streams which are the headwaters for the drinking and recreational waters throughout the Southern Appalachian region.
1) Source seed and plant stock/ explore various methods of propagation.
2) Explore cultivation in various micro-environments. Establish beds at spring heads and along mountain streams with minimal disruption of the native surroundings.
3) Successfully grow the plants through a two season cycle, to the production of harvestable rhizomes and into seed production.
4) Explore potential markets and marketing.
1. Sourcing seed and plant stock/propagation:
Our basic method here was to search high and low, beg, and offer to swap. Sourcing adequate amounts of seed and/or plants is the first challenging step to growing wasabi. Early on we were offering to swap anything we had growing on the farm or in the garden, in whatever quantities, for any sort of wasabi starts we could get (even on Dave’s Garden.) We were finally able to order a small half flat of plantlets, which turned out to be tissue cultures from Doug Lambert, of Real Wasabi. We also ordered rhizomes, hoping we may be able to propagate from the rhizome.
Shortly thereafter we found first year seedlings and fresh seed from Joe Hollis at Mountain Gardens in Burnsville, NC. Who has been a very most reliable and informative supplier but who only has small quantities available for purchase and with his commitment to seeing the crop take hold, limits the quantity he sells to each individual.
1. A.) Sourcing seed and plant stock/propagation:
The tissue culture plantlets suffered in shipping, were slow growing and incredibly fragile. We lost about a third of the order within a week of their arrival. Some from broken stems, some from shipping trauma. The remainder held on but despite being located in a cool and shaded area, misted and tended, after four months, they showed little growth or root development. Because they were started in a sponge which provided no apparent nourishment, we finally fertilized with a very dilute fish emulsion, which did not seem to produce results. Indoors, in their weakened condition, they drew aphids which damaged leaves and stems. Moved outdoors, they were discovered by a raccoon. Three of the original 24 tissue cultures survived, which were transplanted into a sand bar along a stream. There they lived and flourished, and began their fall growing spell, before they were washed away by a flood.
What we learned: Tissue cultures are perhaps not the best option for small growers without an academic/scientific background. If that source is preferred (and there are many reasons to prefer it, i.e. named varieties, disease free stock) it would be preferable to avoid shipping. If shipping, the sponges holding the plants need to be taped in place, secured within a protective covering, secured firmly within the package, shipped with a cold pack, and shipped in the latter part of the day, overnight to arrive, and be opened immediately upon arrival. In the long run, it would probably be better to avoid shipping all together, pick them up in an air conditioned car, and sing to them all the way home.
1. B.) Propagation by Rhizome: Though called “Japanese horseradish” and similar in many ways, wasabi doesn’t appear to follow the same propagation techniques as horseradish. We received the rhizomes, sectioned them in one inch sections, enclosed them in sealed container with a towel to retain moisture, tucked them into a dark cool place, and lost them. One word though, since rhizomes for propagation were not available, we purchased rhizomes sold for culinary purposes. Several in the batch had dark circles in the core, when cut open. These could have been diseased. If the difficulty in securing stock continues, this technique might be worth further study.
1. C.) Propagation from Seed: The most important aspect of propagation from seed is the timely harvesting and continued care of the seed. Seeds mature in late May early June in our area. Because they grow in a damp area, and tend to droop, the stems baring the pods need to be arranged for air flow, to prevent rot. Prior to harvesting, the seed pods need to be carefully examined for maturity—a full pod which shows seed and, most importantly, a darkening color to the pod They should be planted immediately. If it is mandatory to store them, they should be stored in damp sand and refrigerated until they can be planted. When planted they need to be protected, and kept damp until they begin to sprout the following February. With seed, it appears that the less human intervention (with the exception of keeping the seed stems from getting too damp and rotting) the better. Perhaps the most effective method of propagation we found was to create a bed, safe from flooding, and allow nature to follow its course, with minimal intervention. The little seedlings can be transplanted to a new bed when they reach a height of about an inch to an inch and a half. Care should be taken to determine the soil condition when transplanting, (whether it is cohesive or crumbly). Transplants do much better when they are lifted without disturbing the roots, and planted at the same soil depth that they grew at. Care should also be taken that any grower initiated “flooding” does not expose the upper root system. If so it should be carefully covered. Wasabi transplants seem to be particularly vulnerable to variations in root depth. Also, as with all plants, picking a cool overcast day, with a few overcast days predicted, are helpful for minimizing transplant setback. While these guys will naturalize by seed in Western North Carolina, keeping the impact of human intervention to an absolute minimum is the best avenue.
1. D.) Propagation by rootlet: Due to the long maturity horizon, and the losses the first year and second year, to flooding, aphids, raccoons, the household cat etc. we didn’t get to the point of being able to propagate by rootlet– the small reproductive shoots that spring up around the mother plant and are removed (and replanted) before the rhizome is sold for culinary and medicinal uses. Ultimately, this is likely the easiest and most productive method of propagation. That source of stock would be true to the mother variety and would reduce maturity time by a year. Propagation by rootlet appears to be the method used at the sawa gardens which have gone on for centuries in Japan.
2. Explore viability in various microclimates/growing situations.
When we proposed the grant, we had two locations which appeared to be perfect natural beds for wasabi. The best of these was a small shaded sandy/ pond with light gravel, fed by a spring which ran underground (which we had used for successfully rooting cuttings for about four years.) The other was along a spring. We had the water tested; it appeared to be within the known parameters. Both provided shaded, natural beds with a mix of gravel and sand. However, weeks before we transplanted the wasabi into that bed, that bed was flooded by an intense, localized thunder storm. We delayed the transplant, thinking we might have just encountered a “100 year” storm. However, we got our second “100 year” (or at least four year) storm within two weeks. We decided to regroup and err on the side of caution rather to risk a limited amount of stock.
Though our goal was to grow, “sawa” wasabi, (water grown), we went to containers, and tried a small tabletop hydroponic system. The hydroponic system, using sponge grown tissue cultures just did not, for whatever reason, work. We had a little better luck with wasabi grown in pots, but not the growth we were looking for.
Ultimately, we established a bed in alongside a stream, but lost those plants in a flash flood. While the plants we kept in pots, (placed into the stream for short periods to flush and feed) were safe during that particular event, another flood, which reached levels we had no seen since Hugo came through in the late 80s, washed them down stream as well.
The lesson we learned the first year was to never underestimate the power or levels of a flash flood. (In fact, between the aphids, and the tissue culture shipping issues, and the raccoon predation and domestic cat consumption and four different floods, we despaired of ever getting one wasabi plant off the ground, and darkly joked that we should rename our grant, “Fifty Ways to Kill Wasabi.” Tough year. The take away is: If you are going to plant in a natural setting, you need to be able either to predict, or control the water flow.” In Japan, water flow is diverted from a river, and through the beds.
Ultimately, we ended up planting in three different areas to hedge our bets. One is s site, in a small “pond” area fed by an underground wet weather spring, with a small protective structure built around it. Another is a small terraced spot above a stream, which has held up to flooding without plant loss for two years, but appears to have a bit too much light.
The third, and most productive bed, is an elevated terraced beds located between a spring and the small stream that it feeds, with enough elevation to protect it against flash flood danger and constant water flow from a year round spring. As a note, Joe Hollis, of Mountain Gardens in Burnsville, has successfully naturalized wasabi in similar spring/seep and small highland spring settings.
One further note of interest: While shade is necessary for healthy plants (they’ll grow, but struggle with more light) thick adjacent groves of rhododendron** may** have an inverse relationship with wasabi health. In Japan, shade is achieved from tall evergreens and high mountains. Tall deciduous shade seems to work– mixed with the low cast of winter light between mountains.
Another Note: Wasabi seems to thrive in areas where stinging nettle establishes naturally. It can be used as a good indicator plant, or could be sown in areas where a bed is considered.
3. Successfully grow wasabi through a two year cycle, producing marketable rhizomes, and seed stock. Methods, outcomes, impacts described above. We are now working to get to the next stage, production of rootlets from the mother plant, which appears to be the most time efficient and productive method of propagation, and to continue with seed production into a second year, so were reluctant to harvest young plants for their rhizomes. Due to the difficulties and setbacks we encountered in the first year of the grant, we were granted a year’s extension. That kindness enabled us to get to seed production.
4. Test market potential; Without saleable product, and in the interest of reserving existing stock for continued seed and plantlet production, we were unable to make a true test of the market. However, we found an exceptional interest from farmers’ market customers who enjoy trying new products, from chefs at local restaurants and from a local sushi bar. There also seems to be a lot of interest among growers who are interested in a new crop, which would make use of ground that could not be cultivated otherwise. Seed and plantlet stock would be good market potential.
Note: While the focus of our study was the production of a marketable rhizome and perhaps more importantly, the production of additional stock, we also discovered, rather inadvertently, that the leaves of the wasabi plants are a wonderful peppery, green. With adequate quantities to experiment with, those leaves could potentially have a strong market, either shredded as a fresh topping in a light oriental soup, or used for rolling sushi.
Educational & Outreach Activities
There was very little published or available at the time we launched our project. Our interest was sparked by a short video, taken by a Japanese tourist at a gorgeous stone terraced Japanese Wasabi farm we found posted on YouTube. While that video no longer seems to be available, another has been posted, from the same farm, which shows more of the infrastructure, including diversion of stream waters, structures for shade cloth, and the siting of the beds in a narrow mountain valley which gives it the benefit of shade from adjacent mountains on two sides. . That video is available at YouTube by searching: “Japanese Wasabi Farm”. It provides good insight into flood control and the use of natural shade in a native setting.
Most of our research on the project was gleaned from long, late night web searches. A great source of early information for small growers was available from The Frog Farm, a fellow who was growing a small patch, and offered seeds and plants at one point. He no longer seems to have a web presence but might be worth checking back.
New Zealand has become a large scale commercial producer. A quick Google of New Zealand Wasabi will fill a basket with reading and provide some insight into large scale hydroponic farms.
Pacific Coast Wasabi is a large scale commercial producer which now has farms in British Columbia, Michigan, Washington and Oregon. They offer fresh wasabi rhizomes and nutraceuticals. They are also looking for growers. Find them at www.wasabia.com (yes, it has the final “a” on it) They are also looking for growers: Contact: Dr. Brian Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org
Real Wasabi is located in Cullowhee, North Carolina and on the web at www.realwasabi.com They offer good information, fresh wasabi rhizomes, wasabi products and are licensed to import tissue cultured plantlets.
Two wonderful two academic publications available are:
A pdf. Available for download entitled: “Growing Wasabi in the Pacific Northwest” authored by Carol Miles and Catherine Chadwick, a Pacific Northwest Extension Publication, Produced by Washington State University, Oregon State University and the University of Idaho. Ms. Miles was kind enough to allow us access to a the study prior to publication.
And a blog entry, discussing a 2002 project conducted by Randy Collins, Graham County Extension agent, posted by Dr. Jeanine Davis, researcher and extension specialist for North Carolina State University, entitled “Can I Grow Wasabi In Western North Carolina?” can be found at http://ncalternativecropsandorganics.blogspot.com/2010/03/can-i-grow-wasabi-in-western-north.html. Dr. Davis is a fountain of information on woodland medicinal and specialty crops.
Due to the setbacks the first year, and the two year plus maturation period for wasabi, we were unable to hold the field day we had initially planned. Our plots didn’t go into bloom and seed production until two months after the extension period had ended. In lieu of the field day, we have a blog which outlines what we learned at Wasabi Waters. Though the grant period has ended we will continue to update the blog.
1) We were able to successfully source, and explore a new crop about which little was known in the US.
2) With that limited stock we were able to explore the positives and negatives of various sites and conditions, which types of sites are preferable, and find that stinging nettle is a very good native indicator species.
3) We were able to explore different propagation methods and compare the results, growing time of the three. We were also able to determine that there is more to be learned there, and much of it will only be a matter of time, and many hands moving the project forward.
4) We found that wasabi will grow and naturalize in Western North Carolina, in areas common on hillside farms, with a minimum of capital investment.
5) We were able to make initial inquiries into a potential market and found the interest in wasabi to be very strong in wasabi, both from growers who are interested in working with wasabi as a small scale specialty crop—and– from consumers, particularly chefs and sushi restaurants.
6) Despite the fact, and in part due to the fact, that our study was conducted in a three year period where we had numerous exceptional flooding events and through three exceptional winters (two with continuous snow levels we hadn’t seen in 30 years, followed by one that was exceptionally warm) we were able to test the weather parameters for growing wasabi. We found that even with exceptional weather conditions, the conditions for growing wasabi seem to be right in Western North Carolina.
Once we got into our study we found that other growers had gone before us, experimenting with various methods of growing wasabi, either on a larger commercial scale (Doug Lambert, Real Wasabi, Cullowhee, NC), in an academic research project (……………….) or in a small experimental plot, (Joe Hollis, Mountain Gardens, Burnsville, NC) We were able to take something from the methods and experiences of each of those ventures, and move forward.
We think wasabi is a viable crop in Western North Carolina with a significant untapped market, which can be grown without intensive capital outlay. As such, it is a good potential crop that will fit into wetland areas on farms which were previously non-productive (crop wise) and encourage the protection and low impact, sustainable utilization of those springs and streams in the headwaters.
Wasabi is a crop with significant potential, (maybe not as big as Christmas trees, but it grows in the same sort of steep slope environments and climates, which are unsuitable for conventional crops.) As such, it has the potential for a niche crop with good economic potential for small farms.
One caution, when growing water grown wasabi, is to take preventative steps against loss to flooding.
Another is: though wasabi, when placed in a suitable environment– will naturalize– it has a two to three year maturity period, it needs to be monitored. If the environment becomes too dry, it is prone to aphid infestation. If the environment has too much leaf litter, and stays moist for a long period, it is prone to slugs. Both problems can cause significant damage in a short period of time.
At elevations of 3400 to 3700 feet, we tend to have more intense winters which push the climatic limits of wasabi in winter. At lower elevations, the summer temperatures likely have the same delay on maturity and development of the plant. Further research into low cost, natural methods (perhaps as simple as haybales or low hoop structures which capture the ambient temperature of the water and reduce the impact of wind) which would be helpful at moderating microclimate would likely be useful to mitigate significant temperature extremes.
The most significant stumbling block for the development of this crop as a viable economic crop is the difficulty in securing seeds and plant stock. We ended up patchworking our stock together from various sources, and were unable to secure stock of named varieties (some of which might be more suitable to our growing conditions) from a certified disease free source. A concerted and cooperative effort from the states/, region/ area universities to secure and provide access to starter stock for wasabi for growers would be a significant step that would open the door to a new, potentially highly profitable crop.
For small growers, with springs, small streams, seeps, (particularly if stinging nettle is growing nearby), it would be well worth the effort and investment to put in first year plants or start a seed bed. Joe Hollis at Mountain Gardens in Burnsville offers an annual workshop, and limited quantities of seeds and first year plants. Find him at email@example.com. He is a good local source for fresh seeds. Richter’s at http://richters.com offers seeds when they have them in stock. Wasabi seeds are now available on eBay in various quantities, shipped from Japan. Because of the time in transit, the need to keep the seeds moist until they are planted, and the ten month germination period, that source carries some risk, but may be worth a try in small quantities.
For growers who are interested in taking the plunge, Pacific Coast Wasabi at http://www.wasabia.com is looking for contract growers.
Bottomline: It’s a great crop with strong potential. In the past three years, significant advances have been made in growing wasabi in North America. (Currently it is being grown commercially in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Michigan – all of which share a ginseng growing climate with us.)
The market is there–and will likely continue to develop. With adequate starter stock, it could have a significant impact for small and medium sized regional farms, as well as large scale commercial producers.