Withania somnifera or Indian Winter cherry or Ashwagandha is a famous herbal remedy in Ayurvedic medicine. It is used as anti-stress, anti-depressant, adaptogenic, rejuvenative, aphrodisiac, body building herb with great promises.
WS is commonly grown and naturally found in India and North American region, Africa and Mediterranean area. However it is in use for thousands of years in India and in Ayurveda.
Growth Of WS:
WS is an erect and branched shrub with greenish or lurid yellow flowers.
WS grows and it is ready for harvest in one year and it does not require very special environmental conditions for its growth. On the other hand, herbs like Ginseng require special growing conditions and may take up to seven years to have their full medicinal value.
This aspect of WS can help to the issue of herbal extinction. Some herbs like Ginseng, Goldenseal, Suma, Lady’s slipper are greatly used in western world and they might be helped with this fact.
Condition Of Soil:
WS grows well in sandy loam or light red soil having pH 7.5 to 8.0 with good drainage. Black soils or such heavy soils are suitable for cultivation.
Climatic Conditions For Growth:
WS is grown as late rainy season (kharif) crop. The semi-tropical areas receiving 500 to 750 mm rainfall are suitable for its cultivation as rainfed crop. If one or two winter rains are received, the root development improves.
The crop requires relatively dry season during its growing period. It can tolerate a temperature range of 200C to 380C and even low temperature as low as 100C. The plant grows from sea level to an altitude of 1500 meter above sea level.
Varieties Of WS:
The Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalay, Madhya Pradesh, has released one high alkaloid variety “Jawahar” which is short in stature and most amenable for high density planting. The variety yields in 180 days and yields a total withanolides content of 0.30 per cent in dry roots.
Harvesting Of WS:
Maturity of the crop is judged by drying out of leaves and yellow-red berries. Flowering and bearing of fruits start from December onwards. The crop is harvested for roots by digging in January to March i.e. 150 to 180 days after sowing.
There should be moisture in soil at the time of digging. Roots are dug out or ploughed using power tiller or a country plough. The tap root should be carefully pulled out not damaging even the small lateral roots.
Post-harvest handling & Various Grades:
The roots are separated from the aerial portion by cutting the stem 1 to 2 cm above the ground. After digging, the roots are washed, cut into 7 to 10 cm small pieces and dried in sun or shed. Roots should be dried to 10 – 12 % moisture content. Root pieces can be graded in following 3-4 grades as per its length and thickness :
(1) A grade root: Root pieces upto 7cm and diameter 1.0 – 1.5 cm, solid, bright and pure white.
(2) B grade root: Root piece upto 5 cm and diameter 1 cm, bright and white.
(3) C grade root: Root pieces upto 3-4 cms in length, diameter less than 1 cm,solid, side branches.
(4) Lower Grade: Small root pieces, semi-solid, very thick, yellowish, chopped.
The superior grade has stout and long root which fetches premium price. To avoid moisture and fungal attack on the dried roots, it should be stored in tin containers.
Berries are hand plucked separately. They are dried and crushed to take out the seeds.
Description In Ayurveda:
This is a small, woody and erect shrub and grows up to 5 feet of height. It is well branched.
The traditional description of a herb is very different from the one that is used by modern herbal medicine researchers. Previously it was governed by organoleptic criteria like smell, flavor, texture, shape, color, post digestive flavor or metabolic flavor, active property, unique effects.
Ayurvedic medicine used all of these and developed a set of its own criteria – taste, properties, post digestive flavor, active property, unique effect.
Its fruit is bright red and in clusters. Fruit is harvested in late fall. The bright yellow seeds are dried and planted in next spring. The cultivated Nagori variety is considered best in India. It is reported to be up to 7 feet in height. Nagori variety is cultivated in Rajasthan State of India.
The root is greyish from outside and white from inside and 1 to 1.5 feet long. The earthy odor and flavor of WS is due to some steroidal lactones or Withanolides.
Ashwagandha Coagulans, a related species and occasional adulterant, primarily uses the inside kernel of the seed capsule containing “withanin” which is similar to rennet to curdle milk. “About a tablespoon of the mixture of seeds with a little milk (1 in 40) is enough to coagulate a gallon of milk in approximately a half an hour. Alcohol will destroy the coagulating principle but the dried capsules can be used.
Other Species Of WS:
There are over 20 other species of the Withania that occur in the dry parts of India, North Africa, Middle East and Mediterranean. These include Withania coagulens and Withania simonii, the roots of which are sometimes used interchangeably with those of Withania somnifera.
Withania somnifera itself has been extensively domesticated from the wild form. In India, at least five different cultivars have been developed for increased root size and adaptation to different climates.