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Opportunities in micro-propagation: Growing Wasabi in Scotland

"At that point, someone challenged me to grow wasabi. Although I had tasted 'wasabi' with sushi some time before, I had not connected it with a specific plant. It was only later I found out most 'wasabi' served with sushi is a mixture of horseradish and green dye. This challenge set me on a quest to master the full cycle of cultivation and raise awareness of the real taste of wasabi and the impressive health benefits it bestows. In doing so, I repurposed skills from my earlier career as a cancer researcher and expertise in mammalian cell culture to transition to plant tissue culture," says Janet Colston, a CEA Plant Micro-Propagator and Co-founder of The Functional Plant Company, based in Scotland.

Janet and her son Lachlan Colston at GreenTech this year

The Functional Plant Company provides consultancy services and young starter plants to various growers, ensuring they achieve successful cultivation in different environments. Janet explains, "One issue with wasabi is a difficult supply chain and "a significant level of CEA knowledge is required to grow this tricky plant."

After many years of mastering the technical skills to grow wasabi in hydroponics, she realized tissue culture could play a crucial part in producing large volumes of clean starting material. Not much later, micro-propagation became the base of her cultivation methods and business. Janet's expertise in tissue culture and plant cultivation helped her to develop efficient propagation methods for wasabi and other challenging crops you would rarely see in Scotland.

"You can propagate almost any plant and grow a whole new plant, from a node, seed or leaf tissue and clone these within a sterile controlled environment. After cleaning plants up, they can then be manipulated using plant growth regulators and a controlled environment to help them multiply and grow roots," she explains.

"Wasabi in tissue culture and grown out in CEA produces the best results," Janet says

As a spinoff of her fruitful propagation cultivars, Janet's work at The Functional Plant Company also focuses on helping others overcome similar challenges. "The whole process of scaling up, and choosing which plant or variety, for the given situation is important, as well as diversifying genetics which will lead to better solutions for CEA growers " she explains.

Looking beyond Scotland, she connected with Chris Higgins of Hort Americas through a shared vision of empowering new growers to develop CEA skills and the health benefits of different plants. The pair now work together regularly to bring that knowledge to readers of Texas-based Urban Ag News.

From community gardens to CEA
"Chris Higgins was pivotal to my success and encouraged me on the journey of CEA and plant supply chains," she recalls. Her initial foray was rooted in a community garden project aimed at providing a safe space for growing and propagating plants. The project's challenges led her to explore aquaponics, merging her scientific background with plant cultivation. However, back in 2014, there weren't a lot of options available to learn CEA skills.

Her determination to blend science with traditional agriculture drove her to visit a small off-grid hydroponicum farm in the north of Scotland, learning about various hydroponic systems, and applying those insights to her vertical farm projects. However, the economic realities of scaling production and market demands were challenging. "I struggled with the in- and outputs of the farm, which I later had to sell to the public as they couldn't pay what we would be producing," she notes. "That's when I started looking at high-value plants like wasabi," she adds.

Scaling and economic viability
One of the key hurdles Janet faced was the scalability of wasabi cultivation. "Depending on which variety, it can be a big plant to scale up, imagine one plant per m², and a harvest that can take up to 3 years. That's a huge number of football fields to get the economy of scale going. The intricate nature of wasabi's growth requirements and the long maturation period posed significant challenges," she states.

Scottish Wasabi adding 'spice' to Scottish Oysters

To address these, Janet has refined techniques for boosting yield and quality and tested a variety of different cultivars for indoor leaf and smaller, quicker rhizome production. Controlling harvest indoors is the way forward for food service, but you can also move them outside later on to mature and get bigger. I clone them, and keep them in small jars until ready for acclimation" she explains. This method allows for uniform controlled growth and minimizes disease risks.

Looking ahead, Janet is also working on other high-value crops like saffron and vanilla. "I've been working on saffron for a while, in terms of cloning to get the bulbs big enough to go into vertical farming. That's a work in progress which will take years," she notes. Vanilla, another challenging crop, presents its own set of difficulties due to fungal infections and the complexity of cleaning the plants for tissue culture. "It's another complicated plant, but if you know what you do, it's not hard to transfer it to a large scale," she points out.

For more information:
Functional Plant Company
Jane Colston, CEA Plant Micro-Propagator and Co-founder
[email protected]