I have come to the conclusion that if a plant wants to work with you, they come into your life and their relationship is an easy and fruitful one. This is certainly my experience with Ashwagandha. Being a native of the Indian subcontinent, you wouldn’t expect it to flourish in our relatively cold and wet climate, but for the past three years it has cheerfully grown to maturity, flowered and fruited despite dreadful summers with rain bringing constant soggy growing conditions.
My two original plants came from Debs Cook as seedlings in 2009. From their seeds I gave some away and grew a dozen or so more, but none of them flowered or fruited and although I tried to overwinter the plants, the severe weather conditions killed them all.
Luckily, one of my apprentices had more success with her plants and gave me three cherries. From those seeds I grew sixty plants over the summer and by October felt I could finally harvest and begin to work with the roots.
It was fascinating to see how different plants in different locations had matured in different ways. Those growing in straight lines in the new herb bed were taller, produced more fruit and their roots were twice the volume of their cousins planted in squares in the original herb bed. After washing and scrubbing of the soil, half the roots were tinctured and the remainder chopped up into thin, inch long pieces and dried in my hot cupboard in a paper bag.
The ashwagandha plant and fruit has no discernible smell. I purchased root powder from Baldwins a year or so ago and that too had no smell. My home grown roots smelled distinctive and earthy. In the four or so days between harvested and preparation, they filled the entire outhouse with their particular scent. The tincture tastes as the root smells, dominating other tinctures in my morning tonic and the dried roots also kept their smell when I finally transferred them from paper bag to glass jar last Friday (after nearly three months in the hot cupboard in a paper bag).
Last Saturday was my first workshop of the year. We were studying tonics, so it seemed a good opportunity to try some new ways of experiencing ashwagandha. The night before, I took 25g of purchased root (which was possibly twice as thick as my own) and covered it with cold water. On Saturday morning, the water was transformed into a noticeably more viscous liquid. The roots and fluid were divided into half. One half was simmered with milk and a small handful of three year old apothecary’s rose petals (which retained both colour and scent!) for 30 minutes and the same was done using almond milk with the other half.
Both groups who tasted the Ashwaganda milk commented on its distinctive, nourishing flavour. Everyone enjoyed it. I tasted the cow’s milk version and found it pleasant despite the noticeably bitter aftertaste on the very back of my tongue.
Both Kiva Rose Hardin and Gail Faith Edwards recommend using rose petals to counteract ashwagandha’s warming effects, rather than using the herb on its own. Kiva also suggests pairing it with milky oats for adrenal exhaustion or with nettle seed for those people who have absolutely no energy. In her wonderful article, she offers a useful formula of 2 parts Ashwagandha, 2 parts Nettle, 1 part Peach, and 1/2 part each Lemon Balm and Rose as her personal favourite treatment for adrenal exhaustion, but says, “This is very cooling and calming, and could be made a bit more stimulating and warming with the omission of the Peach and the addition of Rosemary in its stead and a 1/2 part fresh Ginger.”
I’ve not yet worked with Peach as my poor tree has been afflicted with leaf curl since I bought it nearly four years ago. We moved it to a more sunny and sheltered position by the barn wall last spring so I am hopefully it might begin to flourish one day!
There are still ten plants sitting either on windowsills or on the table in my garden summerhouse. Some leaves are dropping, but others are vibrant and green. I am watering them sparingly and have just installed a heater into the summerhouse as the forecast for this next week predicts frosts of several minus degrees centigrade.
The cherries this year were slow to turn from green to orange, so I have harvested the fruits in batches – discarding those which failed to mature and setting the bright orange ones to dry in paper bags and envelopes.
Ten cherries have been given to an apprentice whose ally this year is ashwagandha. She made the point of visiting the plants in the summerhouse as well as the one I’d brought down for the workshop attendees to admire and help themselves to a fruit to take home with them. She emailed me the following day saying, “I was affected deeply by my first real contact with her, so was left a bit dumbstruck.”
Ashwagandha does that to you. You watch her spring to life from a tiny seed, then grow to green maturity in four short months. Her lantern-like fruit pods hide the growing cherries and it is not until those lanterns turn from green to dry brown you notice her vibrant and truly amazing fruits. More months pass until those fruits become winkled and you can carefully peel off the scarlet covering to reveal the white seeds inside; seeds which can be planted to begin the circle once again.
She is a truly nourishing plant. Not only does she feed your depleted systems, she teaches and helps you to grow in so many different ways. Next year I shall try making a healing salve from her leaves and I look forward to another abundant harvest of roots and fruits.