The Role That Water Plays in Growing Wasabi
As we mark World Water Day, we can’t help but appreciate the life-giving nature of water and think about the essential role that it plays at our own family-run wasabi farm.
Wasabia japonica has very specific water needs, which make it notoriously difficult to grow. This is why wasabi farms like ours are so rare.
Even in Japan, where wasabi has been grown for thousands of years, farmers are having problems convincing the current generation to join the family business.
SO WHAT MAKES GROWING WASABI SO DIFFICULT?
Well, this amazing plant was first discovered growing next to mountain streams in Japan, and recreating those conditions is rather hard. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1500s that the Japanese figured out how to farm this semi-aquatic plant. Even then, it is not clear exactly who first accomplished that feat of farming.
Many believe the first person to farm wasabi was a villager from Utogi, a mountain settlement on the Abe River in Shizuoka Prefecture. It is thought the villager brought home and successfully replanted wild wasabi at some point in the Edo period.
The main challenge early Japanese farmers faced was that they needed access to spring water in order to grow wasabi plants. That’s because wasabi is a very particular crop, one that needs a very specific type of H2O in order to flourish. You see, wasabi has very narrow tolerances for pH, water temperature, and purity – which means that any fluctuation in the type of water it receives can have disastrous results for the crop.
The plant is also picky about the kind of conditions it grows in. Wasabi likes to be in humid, wet, wooded areas; but it also must not become muddy or waterlogged. This is why it grows so well near streams, where the land is always moist, but will also drain well. In this setting, it also receives natural splashes of fresh, cool water from the stream.
It’s not just its water requirements that made the plant notoriously difficult to grow, wasabi also demands a lot of care from its farmers. This isn’t the kind of crop you can plant and forget about until it reaches maturity, instead it needs to be looked after on an ongoing basis.
Part of the reason for this is that the wasabi plant is highly vulnerable to disease, that means that it requires the right light levels and the correct soil pH balance in order to grow. This sweet spot is incredibly difficult to reproduce which is why it took farmers so long to recreate the plant’s natural habitat, and why it is still a relatively rare crop across the planet today.
Unlike other crops, wasabi is also a demanding plant that requires care and attention every single day. Added to this it isn’t exactly what you’d call a quick crop either. In fact, it can take each plant up to 24 months to reach maturity.
FARMS STRUGGLE TO MEET DEMAND
Over the centuries this laundry list of variables has been a key factor in keeping wasabi farms small, even when demand for the plant – and its health benefits – has blossomed.
These small, typically family-run farms, simply don’t lend themselves to a more industrial approach that is required to meet the world’s growing demand.
That’s not the only issue that has faced the world’s wasabi supply in recent years, however.
For one the crystal clear mountain streams that are used to grow wasabi in Japan have become increasingly polluted, providing a death knell for such a sensitive plant. To make matters even worse, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 has also made it much harder to grow crops.
For a while, wasabi farming looked like it might be at risk of dying out.
A MODERN SOLUTION
But just as water helped create life here on Earth, so it breathed new life into wasabi farming, in the form of hydroponics and hydroculture.
On our family farm, after years of commitment, we have developed a dedicated greenhouse in which we cultivate real, organic wasabi. Fuelled by biomass and irrigated with collected rainwater, our greenhouse aims to create optimal conditions for wasabi—and preserve all its health benefits.
In this way, we can monitor and control the variables like heat, humidity, CO2 levels, shade, pH, nutrients, pests so essential to cultivating wasabi. We don’t attempt to replicate nature, but rather, to create an environment wherein we can provide ideal growing conditions for this special plant.
So this World Water Day, we at Wowsabi couldn’t be more thankful for water—whether it comes from mountain streams in Japan, or the rainy skies over British Columbia.