Ashwagandha plants aren’t something you generally find outside of India and Nepal, but they’ll grow easily in a backyard garden. Also known as Indian ginseng, it’s a potent medicinal in the Ayurvedic tradition. It’s said to impart the strength and vitality of a stallion, and western herbalists know it as an adaptogen that can be used for many different conditions.
The Ashwagandha herb can be expensive to buy, especially in supplement form, but it’s simple to grow and thrives with minimal care.
I was surprised to find an Ashwagandha seedling at our local nursery, but I’ve heard so much about the benefits of Ashwagandha that I couldn’t pass it up. I love the idea of growing vitality in my garden, and the simple act of growing keeps me young even if all the herbs in the world are nothing more than placebo.
Like many gardeners excited at the nursery, I picked up a seedling with absolutely no idea how to grow it. Over the course of the summer, my tiny plant thrived even though it was mostly forgotten.
The Ashwagandha plant is a perennial herb hardy to zone 6. I’m growing in a cold zone 4 with a 100 day growing season, which doesn’t exactly mimic the conditions found in India. None the less, I was able to grow Ashwagandha as an annual and harvest the medicinal roots before the first frost.
Every instruction I could find said that ashwagandha plants thrive in dry soil, and they’re extremely drought tolerant. The plants are generally started from seed in a soil that’s at least 70 degrees F. The seeds take about 2 weeks to germinate, and after that, Ashwagandha plants need temperatures between 70 and 95 degrees for optimum growth.
This summer was one of the hottest and dryest on record in Vermont, but it’s still rare to see a 90+ degree day. Dry is also a bit relative since a dry summer here still means 4 to 6 inches of rain per month. Even with the relatively cool and wet conditions, my plant grew nicely. Plants generally reach around 3 feet tall, and mine was about 2 1/2 feet tall and flowering as the first frosts arrived in mid-October.
If allowed to mature fully, ashwagandha plants produce bright red fruit in a papery husk. They look somewhat similar to tomatillos or husk cherries, though they’re not related. My plants only made it as far as flowering, but in a warmer climate with a longer growing season, they should fruit. I’ve read that the fruit generally matures once the plants are between 150 and 180 days old, which is much longer than our local growing season.
In traditional ashwagandha propagation, the roots are harvested after the fruit have completely matured. In colder climates, the whole plant can be potted up and overwintered indoors. If they’re kept at cool indoor temperatures, around 60 degrees, growth will slow over winter and they’ll be ready to resume once spring arrives.
Another option is simply harvesting the roots before the first frost. The harvest will be a bit smaller, but you’ll save the hassle of growing ashwagandha indoors. Carefully dig each root and gently dust off the soil. Give them a quick wash and then dry them in a well-ventilated area with good air flow.
Since ashwagandha plants are generally grown in hot, dry conditions it may be difficult to effectively dry the roots in humid climates. We had a bit of trouble getting the roots to dry out thoroughly. In that case, chop the roots and dry them in a dehydrator, or in the oven on the lowest setting.
How to Use Ashwagandha
Now that you have Ashwagandha, what on earth do you do with it? When I harvested the roots I was overwhelmed with how “medicinal” they smelled, and not in a pleasant way. The powdered roots are quite bitter, but that’s common with medicinals. Traditionally, powdered ashwagandha root is mixed with honey and milk to help mask the taste. It’s also a common ingredient in “golden milk” which is basically a medical herbal chai that often incorporates turmeric, ginger and other health-boosting Indian herbs.
Benefits of Ashwagandha
As an adaptogen and ginseng substitute, ashwagandha is appropriate for many conditions. Studies have shown that it can inhibit tumors in cancer patients and help improve memory for Alzheimer’s patients (source). Traditionally, it’s used to promote general vitality regardless of the situation. Ashwagandha is given to weak or sickly children, adults seeking greater focus or concentration, and the elderly to forestall dementia.