Withania somnifera, known commonly as ashwagandha, Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, or winter cherry is a plant in the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Common names: winter cherry (Eng.); bitterappelliefie, geneesblaarbossie, koorshout (Afr.); bofepha (Sotho); ubuvuma (Xhosa); ubuvimbha (Zulu); ashwagandha (Hindi).
Withania somnifera is a small shrub to 2 m high and to 1 m across. Almost the whole plant is covered with short, fine, silver-grey, branched hairs. The stems are brownish and prostrate to erect, sometimes leafless below. Withania somnifera can be recognised by the red fruit covered by the brownish, papery, inflated calyx.
Withania somnifera contains more than 80 chemical compounds, mainly alkaloids and steroids (withanolides). Numerous studies have been published on the activities of these compounds, mostly obtained from the leaves and roots. These studies have demonstrated antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, cytotoxic, anti-tumour and cholesterol-lowering activities.
This is an important plant in the traditional medicine of Africa and Asia. Ashwagandha is perhaps the best known of all the plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has narcotic, sedative and diuretic properties and counteracts the symptoms of stress. It is widely referred to as ‘Indian ginseng’, and like the real ginseng from Chinese medicine (Panax ginseng), it is used as a general tonic and considered to be effective against a large number of ailments. In traditional medicine in southern Africa the leaves are used to heal open as well as septic, inflamed wounds, abscesses, inflammation, haemorrhoids, rheumatism and syphilis; a paste of leaves is applied or ointments are made with fat or oil. For internal use the dried roots are taken in the form of a decoction, infusion or tincture.
Growing Ashwagandha from Seed
Plant ashwagandha in dry and sunny location of your garden. It is a drought tolerant plant and grows in dry soil, once established. It needs sandy and well-draining soil and doesn’t like wet feet. Plant seeds 2 cm deep and 10 cm apart when temperature is around 20 C. Seeds will germinate in two weeks. Water the seedlings well while they are establishing. Thin out the weak plants after a month of growing, leaving the space around 50 – 60 cm between plants.