HEAT CHECK: Do you have the savvy to grow wasabi?

One of the only commercial wasabi farmers in the United States, Jeff Roller grows the rare plant as co-owner of Half Moon Bay Wasabi. The company raises wasabi in greenhouses. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

Attention, expert gardeners: Are you looking to test your green thumb with an exciting new plant, an intriguing addition to your predictable rotation of backyard regulars? How about spicing up your repertoire with some wasabi?

Yes, the sinus-scorching sushi condiment could bring a little zing to your horticultural hobby, as long as you have a lot of patience, a high tolerance for failure and a cool patch of shade.

If you decide to take on this challenge, you would be wise to listen to Jeff Roller, who has amassed more than a decade of wasabi-growing experience as co-owner of Half Moon Bay Wasabi.

“We sell a lot of these baby plants to people,” he said, emphasizing that “we tell them, we don’t guarantee nothing, man. It ain’t easy to do.”

Roller’s business is dedicated to supplying mature plant material to Japanese restaurants, but having received interest from curious individuals over the years, the company recently began offering plant starts. For $25 plus shipping costs, adventurous gardeners can have three starts delivered to their door.

The company raises wasabi in greenhouses, selling plant starts (pictured) for home growing. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

“We don’t even send a care sheet or anything, because I don’t know what to do for it when it’s out there,” Roller said, avowing that all bets are off once the plant departs the shelter of the company’s Half Moon Bay greenhouses. Those buildings stand less than 30 miles south of San Francisco, directly off the Pacific Coast, where ocean breezes keep temperatures low — just what wasabi wants.

“It really doesn’t like to be too warm,” Roller cautioned, explaining that when the mercury climbs past 70 degrees for days on end, wasabi suffers.

He mentioned that it belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which includes more conventional cool-weather crops like broccoli and cauliflower. If those thrive in your garden, then you might have suitable conditions for wasabi.

However, wasabi takes much longer to mature — Roller harvests his anywhere between 18 months to two years — so you’ll have to plan for a full calendar’s worth of climate fluctuation.

“Have it in a pot, and then kind of move it around in the seasons,” he suggested.

The plant needs less coddling in winter, but in summer, he said, “you gotta have full shade on it.” He recommended placing it “under a maple tree or something; it can’t be in a house.”

Even if you remain undaunted by these constraints, keep in mind you’ll still have to battle a menacing army of pathogens and pests. Culprits often strike at the roots first.

“You get fungal infections, and then it comes up into the crown of the plant, and then you get all these secondary bacterial infections that really take over,” Roller said, adding, “the plants will just completely wilt, and it’s game over.”

And while you might assume its pungency would provide a natural defense against hungry insects, in actuality “bugs love wasabi,” according to Roller. “Aphids, thrips, whiteflies, all those — if you’re not on top of that, you’ll run into problems,” he warned.

How will you know if you’re evading the wide range of threats to your wasabi? Roller said to look for “a good crown on the plant that’s erect — straight up, not wilting — and healthy leaves coming off the crown.”

As much attention as a wasabi crown deserves, however, the plant’s true claim to fame resides lower down, in the stem. Spanning about six inches in length, the stem requires only a bit of peeling and grating to transform into the celebrated paste that pairs so well with sushi. Stems represent Half Moon Bay Wasabi’s principal product, although “we call them rhizomes, just because that’s what everybody else calls them,” noted Roller, who acknowledged the debatable accuracy of this term, since rhizomes technically live underground.

The company raises wasabi in greenhouses, selling stems (also known as rhizomes, pictured) for grating into paste. photo by Alec Yoshio MacDonald

While just one part of the plant generates bankable commercial value, the entire thing is edible. Roller raised this point as potential consolation for home growers, who often struggle to cultivate stems of any real magnitude. So even if your plant follows that pattern of paltry development, “you will get leaves, and the leaves are delicious,” he declared. “They taste like mustard greens,” he said, remarking, “there’s no real heat to them.”

He cited pickling as the most common culinary preparation for wasabi leaves, an approach favored by his longtime customer Sylvan Mishima Brackett, owner of the San Francisco izakaya Rintaro. Roller has also heard of them being used for salads, juices, and tempura. Much more unexpectedly, he once received a flurry of leaf orders from guys attempting to cure baldness, after a Japanese firm publicized research claiming that wasabi was three times more effective as a topical treatment than the hair-loss medication Rogaine.

The resulting sales bump inspired Roller’s business partner Tim Hall to perform a test on his own scalp, a whimsical experiment which proved unsuccessful and also quite painful. In general, though, Half Moon Bay Wasabi pays scant regard to the many claims about the supposedly remarkable powers of wasabi. Roller prefers to keep his entrepreneurial focus much tighter: “I’m just trying to get it to people that want to use it in their food,” he asserted.

Of course, he’s also willing to get it to people that want to put it in their gardens, but he’s not as keen to make those kinds of sales — he’s wary of enabling a future competitor. Distributing live plants feels a little like broadcasting trade secrets.

Roller’s concern might seem a tad paranoid, but he and Hall built up their business through years of arduous trial and calamitous error; after working so hard to establish one of the only commercial wasabi farms in the United States, he desperately wants to protect his niche.

The company seems pretty safe, though, given the degree of difficulty involved in wasabi growing. Just how difficult is something you’ll have to determine for yourself.

So head on over to the Half Moon Bay Wasabi Website to order a few plant starts.

And as you embark on this formidable gardening challenge, think about what Roller said motivates him to grow wasabi: “It’s always fun to do something that people say can’t be done, you know?”

For more information about Half Moon Bay Wasabi, visit https://hmbwasabi.com, call (415) 205-5797 or e-mail info@hmbwasabi.com.

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