Monday, 20 December 2010

December blog party: Adaptogens - A tale of Ashwagandha

This post is part of the December UK Herbarium Blog Party, No time for stress, hosted by Brigitte at My Herb Corner.

If you had asked me two years ago to describe an adaptogen or name one of the plants which fell into that category, I would have looked at you blankly and shook my head. I may have heard the term, but it didn’t really mean anything to me. Then I ordered myself a copy of “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief” by David Winston and Steven Maimes and spent several weeks reading during my ten minute commute to work every morning.

Adaptogens are such incredible plants. Winston and Maimes describe them as “remarkable natural substance that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions and help restore balance.

In 1968, Bekhmann and Dardymov gave adaptogens a formal definition. They said firstly, an adaptogen is nontoxic to the recipient. Secondly, it provides a non-specific response in the body – an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical and biological agents. Thirdly, an adaptogen has a normalising influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.

They almost sound too good to be true.

Winston and Maimes provide a list of 21 plants classified as true adaptogens. The frustrating part is that none of them are UK natives. I suppose this isn’t surprising since the cultures which have studied adaptogens most closely are Ayuvedic and Chinese medicines, with the Soviet Union getting in on the act following the Second World War when they were looking to support their scientists to win the space race. Modern Chinese research was also to do with winning – but sporting achievements rather than the struggle for off-planetary supremacy.

I wasn’t sure I could grow any of the listed plants, since most of them thrive in hotter climates. I’d already tried American gingseng (panax quinquefolius) but it disappeared from the herb bed shortly after planting and I didn’t know what I was really looking for to keep an eye on it. Liquorice (Glycorrhiza glabra) was another short lived purchase, but since it’s a herb I feel I should learn more about, it may be something I experiment with a little more seriously in the future.

Two plants really did call to me. One was Rhodiola (Rodiola rosea) because I was curious to smell its root when mature and the other was Ashwagandha or winter cherry (withania somnifera). Everyone seemed to wax lyrical about it and Kiva Rose Hardin wrote a beautiful article about the plants she grows in her canyon. Despite the differences in our climates, I decided to see if ashwagandha was something I could make friends with.

Luckily Debs Cook was growing some ashwaganda plants from seed in the spring of 2009. She gave me two seedlings and I carefully planted them on the patio and watched their progress. It was a joyful experience watching the two plants grow large green leaves, then flower and produce vibrant green fruits which eventually turned a vivid scarlet as they ripened. I was so excited.

I picked the fruits, carefully drying and storing them in the kitchen drawer. I hoped the mature plants might overwinter, given our previous incredibly mild winters. Obviously the severe frosts and snow during 2009/2010 destroyed that hope, but I still had my seeds.

During one of the spring workshops, we carefully pulverised the ashwagandha fruits to reveal white seeds. Soil taken from molehills filled two seed trays and around 30 seeds were planted. Workshop attendees also took seeds home and I know at least one plant germinated successfully and grew.

I have to confess I am not a green fingered gardener. I do not provide seeds with heated trays or self watering systems. They are placed on the patio and left to the vagaries of the weather. I may water them if I remember.

The ashwagandha seeds appeared happy. Over twenty of them germinated and I took six of the largest plants to the farm where they grew into mature specimens. Unfortunately the lack of water and the early frosts meant they didn’t set fruit that I could see. I dug them up and replanted them in my parents’ greenhouse, but I don’t hold out much hope for their survival in the current weather conditions.

I kept twelve plants in large pots on the patio where they would get the most warmth. Two plants in the same position as last year’s plants turned very sickly. I think the cause might be the sudden appeared of a rogue mullein interloper in the pot. Don’t ask me how it got there. I know I should have removed it immediately but I didn’t. I love mullein and to suddenly have it appear in my garden was a real joy. Of course, next year, I shall probably discover it’s not mullein at all but false alkenet and then I shall be really unhappy!

General advice is to harvest ashwagandha roots after the first frost. I had enough plants, but I couldn’t bring myself to harvest them. I kept hoping one of the plants would set fruit, but none of them did. Then I decided to try and over-winter them. There really wasn’t any room in the house and I don’t have a greenhouse, so I placed them all in the garden shed and hoped for the best. I saw them for the first time yesterday when Chris dragged me out from cooking frangipanes to frolic in the powder snow. The snow was beautiful, but my ashwagandha were all frosted so I suspect I have lost them all.

There is something about ashwaganda I really like. I shall try growing them again next year and maybe this time I will harvest some roots and make my own tincture. My aim is to develop an understanding of the plant’s medicine and I am sure that if I have patience this is something achievable. For the time being they have already brought me great delight and sense of accomplishment brought about by the surprised faces of several herbalists when I showed them my plants.

If you are looking for some stress busting recipes at this challenging point in the year try these.
Kiva Rose’s Winter Cherry Nourishing Electuary

2 parts Ashwagandha
1/2 part Nettle Seed
1 part Tulsi (Holy Basil)
2 parts Elm
This makes a lovely moistening adrenal tonic very helpful in times of stress or depletion, providing energy while relaxing the nervous system and body. It’s fairly temperature neutral, and generally gentle enough for anyone.

Ananda Wislon’s Longevity Electuary
In an 8 oz jar, add:
3 tsp Ashwagandha and or Shatawari powder
3 tsp Spirulina powder
3 tsp Slippery Elm or Mallow powder
2 tsp Siberian Ginseng (Eluthero) powder
1 tsp Cardamom powder
1/2 tsp Turmeric powder
Cover almost full with good local, raw honey
Add 1 tsp of Rose hydrosol or Rose elixir. Dried Elderberry powder is optional as well!
Slowly, to avoid the infamous "cloud poof", stir with a spoon until all the powders are smoothed into the honey. Label and store. Refrigeration isn't necessary.

The longevity electuary is intended to be used daily, eaten by the spoonful, used on toast, stirred in warm milk with ghee, or in yogurt or smoothies. Ananda said, “These herbs will provide you with stamina, clarity, physical and mental energy, good digestion, and strong mucous membranes. It is also a notorious aphrodisiac.”


Brigitte said...

Thank you Sarah for this lovely post.
It was new for me to hear about the 'history' of the word 'adaptogen'
It made me curious and I'm looking forward to learn more about it.

Thanks for sharing your story of growing ashwagandha which is actually a herb I have never tried but saw in a special herb-shop.
So next time I will buy some to find out how it smells and tastes ;-)

Thanks for joining the party!
Happy solstice and merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

One plant did germinate, grow and now has seeds, some of which will be returned to you before spring :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah,
It was great to read about your experiences with Ashwagandha. I tried once to grow some but it didn't thrive at all. At the time I was in a flat with a very shady patio as the only outdoor space though so now we have a 'proper' garden I am inspired to try again!
In Ayurvedic medicine they recommend taking a little of the powder with warm milk in the evening as some of it's constituents are particularly well absorbed in fats.
Kiva's elixir recipe sounds divine, I'll be giving that a go.
Hope you have a lovely solstice and Christmas,
Lucinda x

Herbaholic said...

Great post Sarah, I'm really chuffed your managed to get plants from the seeds from the plants I gave you and that you passed them on to others who it now seems are passing them back, glad you enjoyed watching them grow so much :)

The liquorice plant I managed to keep going for two years died back due to the frost, I won't give up hope though, it may come back in the Spring. If not I'll sow more seeds and I'll pass on some plants to you. The holy basil seeds I got last year never got sown, will sow them this spring and you can have some of those as well if you like?

You've just given me even more reasons to look closer at adaptogens, look forward to seeing you in January, have a beautiful Solstice and a peaceful and bright Christmas my friend :)

Debs xxx

Sarah Head said...

I'm so glad you all enjoyed the article - after I'd written it so hurriedly yesterday, I was afraid I hadn't really stuck to the topic! Lucinda, I may try some ashwaghanda in milk as you suggest - goodness knows things have been stressful enough around here recently!

Jacki, I am overjoyed your plant made fruits and am looking forward to growing seedlings next year.

Solstice greeting to everyone!

Broadband said...

Great article. Yes, there these and many other benefits for Ashwagandha. As a 50+ person, I can tell you it works! Here is where I get my supplies, this company makes their products in USA and have Organic Ashwagandha:

Anonymous said...

I have a beautiful ashwaghanda bush in my yard! The problem is that I don't know how to harvest the roots(It makes me cry to pull the plant up)and process the root so as to make a tea or powder from it. Would you happen to know how to do this by chance?
Thank you for any help that you might have!

Sarah Head said...

Barbara, have you saved the cherries from your ashwaganda plant? If so, you can used the seeds in the red cherry to grow more plants. You can dig up the plant carefully and cut away about half the root system and then put it carefully back in the soil and it should be ok. Make sure you give it extra water for a while to encourage new root growth. You can then use the harvested roots to either make tincture or dry and once dry you can powder them. Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story of growing ashwagandha which is actually a herb I have never tried but saw some ashwagandha booster in market