Sunday 15 December 2013

Ashwagandha: working with a tropical plant in the UK

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a universally loved herb, native of India. One of the twenty-one true adaptogens, it holds an important place in Ayurvedic medicine. Although generally known as a herb to combat stress, it has a myriad of uses ranging from behavioural problems to balancing respiratory, immune and genitourinary systems.

As a Western Herbwife, I try not to use herbs I can’t grow myself. Ashwagandha intrigued me but I was loathe to be dependent on imported plant material. I wanted to grow my own and in 2009 I was fortunate to be gifted two seedlings which grew and produced the familiar scarlet cherries. The seeds produced a further crop the following year but temperatures were not sufficient for the plants to flower and ripen seed.

Luckily I had given a seedling to one of my apprentices who had grown the plant to maturity in her greenhouse. She gave me three cherries which in turn produced sixty healthy plants. These third generation plants flourished over the summer producing a respectable root harvest and cherry crop for further sowing.

Although used to hot and humid growing conditions in India, Ashwagandha is a truly amazing plant, able to adapt to our cooler climate as an annual. You watch her spring to life from a tiny seed then grow to green maturity in four short months, enabling a root harvest after the first frost. Her lantern-like fruit pods hide the growing cherries and it is not until those lanterns turn from green to dry, transparent brown you notice her vibrant fruits. More months pass as those fruits dry and you can carefully peel off the scarlet covering to reveal white seeds; seeds which can be planted to begin the circle once again.

This past summer was very hot for the first time for several years. I was hoping for a good ashwagandha crop but the delay in Spring planting and the heavy rain in September and October meant my plants at the Sanctuary were nowhere near as large as in other years with small root systems. I left four plants to grow in a large pot on my patio at home and although they grew to normal size with reasonable roots, they had great difficulty ripening fruit.

November and December have been virtually frost free but it did not seem sensible to leave the four plants any longer as they did not appear to appreciate being overwintered in previous years, either dying or having stunted root systems. It felt very strange harvesting a tropical plant in December but it did mean we were able to experience the whole plant during yesterday’s workshop.

The newly harvested plants were carefully scrubbed and the pungent aroma from the roots noted. I wanted to make an infused honey, so I ground the roots in my machine and duly covered them with local honey. The root odour was even more intense after grinding, reminding one new apprentice of chocolate with a bitter after-smell. I am taking the honey to a talk I am giving on Tuesday evening to my local Beekeepers Association about herbs and honey.

The rest of the roots from the Sanctuary November harvest were also scrubbed free of any remaining soil. Half were chopped by hand and tinctured with vodka and the rest was left to dry in a paper bag in my hot cupboard.

It seemed a shame to waste the stems, so we tried making a decoction. I think we used too much plant material and simmered it for too long as it was extremely bitter to the point of being undrinkable even though we had added some dried rose petals and honey to the mix.

This morning I sat and removed all the cherries from the ashwagandha branches I removed over a week ago. The pile of mature, scarlet cherries was disappointingly small but will be enough to gift to others who wish to try growing this plant.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with green cherries but eventually decided to experiment with a tincture. My inspiration comes from Henriette Kress. She wrote about using dried Echinacea seedheads in place of the more usual roots as she felt the concentration of active ingredients would be similar in both parts of the plant. I have read that Ashwagandha cherries are used as a bitter in India so I shall be very interested to see what similarities the green cherry tincture has with the root tincture.

Even after five years of growing Ashwagandha, I still feel as if I am only scratching the surface when it comes to really knowing and understanding this plant. I’m looking forward to many more years of mutual learning.


Herbaholic said...

WOW! I can't believe that those two little seedlings sparked so many plants :)

nicos said...

great and useful info - I've just been given an 8cm ashwaganda plant and am growing it in the U.K. How long did you keep this in a greenhouse for? any other growing tips? thank you in advance, and for the blog!

Sarah Head said...

Hi Nicos, I usually plant my ashwaghanda plants out around the end of June - whenever they are large enough to stand on their own and the weather has warmed up for them. Try to plant in a sunny and sheltered position. If you are intending to harvest the roots this year, wait until after the plant has flowered and the cherries are bright red if you can. If you want to keep the plant longer, pot it up again in the autumn around end of October and put it back in the greenhouse.

Unknown said...

Do you think the plants grown here in tbe UK have the same adaptogenic qualities?

Sarah Head said...

Interesting question, John. The first year I grew ashwagandha the quality of the roots of my first year plants was just as good as tropical imports which could have been several years older. Plants I've harvested in subsequent years have not been as large but then the summers have been pretty rubbish and the growing season is very short. I am a great believer in local plants for local people. We cannot grow most of the ayuvedic and chinese adaptogens outdoors in a UK climate - maybe that will change for people in the south and east with global warming but I think for me it will become even more difficult. However, I think there are native plants which could well be labelled as adaptogens - nettle and yarrow spring to mind and herb robert may be another if we take time to know the plant more closely. Certainly we need to cultivate our own plants in our own environments if we are to be truly sustainable and one of the worst things we could do is to become reliant on foreign imports in the mistaken belief they are somehow better.

Unknown said...

Hi. I hope you still see this. I was v interested to read about you growing ashwagandha. I grew it in Devon last year & only recently ground the dried roots. Because I take ashwagandha regularly anyway, I was surprised that just a tiny amount cause a slight stomach ache & also a calm/blissful feeling. And this is taking just a little on the end of a tsp. I'm used to taking a tsp of bought in herb.

The plants I grew did not have sufficient season to flower so I wondered if this effected the result or whether they are just more potent due to being fresh and being grown by myself - I've heard this can result in more potent plants. Might you have any suggestions about this? What I'm actually also curious is whether tiny amounts are going to have the same effects as the normal tsp would for bones & muscles. Its important I take it for this...
Thanks, Liz