I know it’s primarily thought of as a medicinal herb. But, some cultures do eat the leaves and tender shoots as a vegetable. My ashwagandha plant was given to me by a friend who collects unusual plants. He said that it a member of the Nightshade family like tomatoes and has a myriad of nutritional benefits. Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs and has been used in traditional Indian medicine for nearly 4,000 years. It is a natural antiinflammatory used as a tonic to promote well-being and bolster the body’s ability to fight disease. The word ashwagandha means “that which has the smell of a horse” and the roots do smell like a wet horse. But, that hasn’t kept it from being one of the most revered medicinal herbs in traditional Asian herbal medicine. It is often mixed in tonics with other herbs because it is thought to have a possible synergistic effect with the other herbs. Commonly known as Indian ginseng, Indian ginger, poison gooseberry, winter cherry, and Kanaje Hindi, it ranges from the drier regions of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and North Africa to China.
Ashwagandha is a tropical perennial woody shrub usually growing 3 to 4 feet in height in cultivation with up to a 20-inch spread. The 2- to 6-inch opposite leaves are broadly oval or elliptical. The dull green leaves and branches are covered with silvery-grey tomentose hairs. The small bell-shaped, yellow-green flowers are hermaphroditic with both male and female sex organs. The small spherical, berry-like fruit are orange-red when ripe and are partially covered with a papery calyx. The fruit are full of numerous tiny yellow, kidney-shaped seeds similar to tomato seeds. The long, light brown roots are the most prized part of the plant for their many medicinal uses. The roots can reach up to 2 feet in the soil.
These plants prefer fairly dry conditions in full sun. They do not do well in the shade. Plant in fertile sandy to rocky soil that is well drained. Ashwagandha plants prefer slightly alkaline soil with a pH of 7.5 to 8.
The ashwagandha is relatively easy to grow and will thrive in the poorest of conditions where other crops won’t live. In commercial nurseries, they are not irrigated or fertilized. But, in a home garden setting, it is best to fertilize once a year with a good broad-analysis fertilizer mixed at half the recommended rate. These plants do not do well planted in containers. But, if you do plant them in a container, use a sandy soil mix like cactus mix.
Propagation of ashwagandha can be accomplished by seeds, cuttings, divisions, and tissue culture. Using seeds is the easiest way too multiple a crop. Seeds can be direct sown outdoors or planted indoors. Sowing indoors is the most efficient method. When planting indoors, sow your seeds in early spring after scarifying them. Use seedling flats or 288-plug trays filled with a light, fast-draining, seedling soil mix with a little sand added. Plant the seeds ¼-inch deep and place them near a sunny south-facing window or under grow lights since the seeds are light-dependent germinators. Keep the soil evenly moist by misting, but allow the soil surface to dry between waterings. Too much water can cause damping-off disease. The seeds will germinate in 14 to 21 days with 15 days being the average. Prick out the seedlings and move them up into 4- or 5-inch containers once they have 4 true leaves. After the seedlings are established, start gradually moving them outside in the shade once the nighttime temperatures are above 60-degrees Fahrenheit since they are frost sensitive. When the seedlings reach 4 to 6 inches in height they may be planted in the ground or in a larger container. If employing the direct sow method outdoors, plant the seeds 3/8-inch deep and 2 feet apart after the last frost.
Pest & Disease
These plants are rarely effected by pest or disease problems. But, sometimes they are impacted by pests such as flea beetles, red spider mites, and leafhoppers. Disease problems can include Alternaria leaf spot and stem/leaf rot disease caused by Choanephora fungus.
Harvest & Storage
This plant is primarily grown for its roots and can be harvested the first year as early as 100 days after planting. But, waiting till after 200 days, well into autumn when the plants are well matured and the berries have dropped will provide longer tuberous roots. The slender light brown roots are carefully washed and cut into 4-inch sections, then dried indoors in a dry dark place. Later, the dried roots can be powdered. In order to retain maximum potency, the dried roots should not be more than 2 years old.
The foliage is cut off and dried separately. The fruit can be collected for the seeds to start next year’s crop.
Ashwagandha is called a rasayna, a health-promoting tonic, in ancient Indian Ayurvedic medicinal manuals, and an adaptagen. Adaptagen is a term coined by a Russian pharmacologist to describe an herb that assists the body in dealing with stress caused by environmental factors. Regular daily consumption of ashwagandha can have numerous health benefits. Medical studies indicate that this plant has antiinflammatory, anti-stress, anti-oxidizing, anti-aging, anti-depressant, anti-seizure, anti-malarial, antitumor, sleep-inducing, neuro-protective and cardio-protective properties. It is also thought to have the ability to improve analytical thinking, reaction time, memory, and could be a possible cure for Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. For centuries, this plant has been widely believed to have aphrodisiac properties especially for men. Scientific research has shown that ashwagandha improves libido in men and increases testosterone production. It also has athletic benefits such as improving oxygen flow and usage on a cellular level. It reduces lactic acid formation thus reducing workout recovery time, as well. To add to its many benefits, it can also strengthen the immune system and is effective in fighting against bacterial and fungal infections.
How to use
The dried root powder can be made into a tea using ½ to 1 teaspoon of powder steeped in boiling water for 10 minutes or the root powder can be whisked into warm milk with sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of cardamom. Coconut or almond milk may also be used instead of milk, if you have a dairy allergy.
The leaves can be applied externally as a poultice for boils and sprains. In a culinary use, the seeds can be ground and used to curdle plant milks (i.e. coconut, almond, cashew) to make vegan cheeses.
Consuming large quantities of ashwagandha on a regular basis may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea. The use of this herb is also not recommended for pregnant women because it might cause miscarriages and is likely unsafe for breast-feeding mothers. It should also be avoided by people with stomach ulcers since the powdered root might cause gastrointestinal irritation in some people. Doctors advise caution while using ashwagandha since there is a risk of drug interaction with medications for depression, anxiety, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid hormones and insomnia. The herb might reduce or increase the activity of these drugs.
References & External Links
1) Earl Mindell’s New Herb Bible, E. Mindell, pp.41 & 204, Simon & Schuster, 2000.
2) Health Benefits of Ashwagandha, htts://www.organicbenefits.net/herbs-and-spices/health-benefits-of-ashwagandha.html.
3) Guide to Medicinal Herbs, R.L. Johnson et al, pp.316-319, National Geographic, 2014.
4) Aswagandha, Herb Gram, Issue 99, G. Engels & J. Brinckmann, pp. 1-7, Consumer Health, August 2013/October 2013.
5) Ashwagandha, www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Withonia+somnifera.
6) Ashwagandha, Organic Gardening, Vol. 62 Issue 1, M.J. Balick, p. 25-26, Alt Health Watch, December 2014/January 2015.