One of the toughest plants in the world to grow is one that you may have think you've eaten—but probably haven't. That plant is wasabi, and the BBC reports on one man's quest to do what so many others in North America have failed at: effectively farm it on a commercial scale. Japan's rocky riverbeds are the natural habitat of the plant, and farmers looking to cultivate it in the West have faced two significant obstacles: As a Washington State horticulture professor explains, wasabi is grown in water beds, a method of farming that's not typically used here. But even planting the seed is a challenge, because they're just so tough to access. In the case of Pacific Coast Wasabi owner Brian Oates, it took him six years to get his hands on "viable" ones.
Once he did, in 1993, the challenges didn't end: Humidity and finding the right nutrients were issues, and, once he tried to expand the scale of his crop, disease became an issue. He finally arrived at a methodology for growing wasabi on a commercial scale—a trade secret that he's since sold to a handful of farmers who operate in a franchisee-like manner. They pay $70,000 to Oates, then invest as much as $700,000 an acre to bring their crop to life—eventually. As the Telegraph reported in a look at wasabi farming, the plant takes two years to grow. But with success comes profit: A pound of wasabi fetches about $70; restaurants pay suppliers as much as twice that. But as for your experience with wasabi in a restaurant, well, you probably haven't had one. An estimated 95% of Japanese restaurants serve a paste of mustard, European horseradish, and food coloring in its stead, notes the BBC.