Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is also known as Indian ginseng, winter cherry and poison gooseberry (it is not poisonous – the berries can be eaten). This plant has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is known as a powerful adaptogen that can detoxify and rejuvenate the body. Medicinal benefits of ashwagandha are numerous, and include reduced inflammation, improved memory, stimulation of the immune system, better sleep and more.
It is quite easy to grow ashwagandha since this plant thrives with minimal care. This plant grows up to 3 feet in height. It has oval leaves that grow between 2 and 6 inches long. The whole plant is covered by silver-grey, felted hairs. Ashwagandha blooms in the fall producing yellow green, star-shaped flowers. Bright red fruits, called berries, are covered in a papery husk like tomatillos or uchuva. This plant is part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family just like tomatoes and potatoes.
How to Reproduce Ashwagandha
It is best to plant the seeds of this herb in a container that has proper water drainage. Those that live in rainy areas should place the container on a raised area, so it does not sit on the ground. Place a thin layer of sand above the seeds which will start growing in a week or two. Wait a month or so until they are between 3 to four inches tall before transplanting your plant outdoors. There should be a distance of at least 60 centimeters between plants to ensure healthy growth.
In India seeds are sown at the start of the monsoon season and are harvested about five months later. The spacing between seedlings is very important, since they do not develop if planted too close. Seedlings that are placed too far or left for too long before harvesting will produce thick fibrous roots. Harvest the plant’s root in the first or second year.
Ashwagandha Growing Conditions
This perennial plant can be grown in areas with no frost. Remember it is native to India and Nepal. Grow as an annual if you live in USDA zones 3 through 10. The ideal temperature for growing Indian ginseng is between 75-90 F (25-32 C). This plant likes hot climates. Temperatures above or below this will cause the plant to grow slower than normal. It is possible to place your plant indoors over the winter and resume it outside in the spring.
Ashwagandha does not like much rain and does better in regions with low rainfall. Too much water can cause it to rot. This plant is very drought tolerant. Water seedlings when transplanted, then water every 8-10 days. Water every five days if the temperature gets above 40 C. Wait until the soil gets little cracks on the ground before applying more water.
Grow this plant in soil with a pH level between 7.5-8.0 which goes from neutral to slightly alkaline. Sandy soil is preferable since it is very porous and allows air to pass easily. It also likes rocky soil. Indian ginseng can thrive in full or partial sunlight.
Do not apply synthetic fertilizer to this plant since it is used medicinally. Excess fertilizers and manure can damage plant growth. Add farmyard manure, green manure or vermicompost when preparing the soil.
Pest and Diseases
This herb suffers from insect attacks, as well as mites and aphids. Some mealybug species like to live in this plant and eat its juices. Carmine red spider mite is another noticeable pest. Treehoppers cause problems to this plant and make it turn brown, rough and woody. Alternaria alternata causes leaf spot disease.
Till between your plants after they are tightly held by the soil. This process will dig out underground bugs. Make sure not to overwater so it doesn’t get root rot.
How to Harvest Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha roots are used medicinally. The name of this plant comes from two words meaning horse and smell in Sanskrit. Roots of this plant are said to release a horse-like-smell. Harvest 160-180 days after planting when the leaves start to dry and the berries turn reddish-orange. Harvest berries and let them dry to have seeds for the next spring. Uproot the plant to harvest the roots. Pull it straight up without tilting so you don’t break the roots. Use the rest of the plant as compost.
Those that live in colder climates should harvest the plant before the first frost, if they do not want to grow it indoors. Dry the roots in a well ventilated area with good airflow. Those that live in humid climates can chop the roots and place them in a dehydrator or oven on the lowest setting. Use a coffee grinder if you want to make ashwagandha powder. Add a teaspoon of powder to a medicinal tea or make a cup of golden milk.