All season, I was looking forward to harvesting the ashwagandha. I had head Deb Soule speak about this powerful herb at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Women's Herbal Conference, and I was excited to grow it.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is is the solanacea family, cousin to tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Unlike its relatives, the fruit is not edible. On this plant, we use the root. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means that it helps the body's non-specific response to stress. It is generally strengthening and increases resiliency, both physical and emotional. Ashwagandha can be a good support for mood imbalances or depression, but it is not immediately uplifting in the manner of lemon balm or other fragrant herbs; rather it slowly builds your resiliency toward your own life challenges. It builds physical resiliency as well: it is recommended for use before and after surgery due to its aid in tissue repair. It is said that if one takes ashwagandha every day for a year, that person will have the strength of a horse for ten years.
As its Latin name suggests, ashwagandha can have sleep-encouraging properties. It is often taken in a tinctured or powdered form right before bed. In my experience it has a slightly nutty, earthy flavor and is quite pleasant when mixed in a glass of warm milk or almond milk with honey and spices.
I seeded the ashwagandha in March and placed it on a warming mat to encourage germination. Ashwagandha comes to us from India, so it's helpful to simulate a warmer climate. In warmer areas the second or third year root is used, but it's too cold here in Pennsylvania to winter over, so we harvest the root at the end of the season in fall. The plants suffered a bit of a drought so I was nervous about the size of the roots.
In October a loyal farm helper, J.R., came to dig the roots with me. We got them out of the ground quickly, rinsed them, and kept them in crates in the barn until I could chop them up the next day. When I walked into the barn in the morning, I was hit with an overwhelming, nauseating smell. Behold, the ashwagandha. It was a challenge to find somewhere to store it that wouldn't make the farm crew feel ill. Later that night, I did some research and discovered that a strong "fragrance" indicates a potent herb. Well, that's good I suppose. That evening, I sat down on a bucket to chop the roots. I very quickly fell asleep, clippers in hand, mid-chop. I think the "somnifera" effects of the ashwagandha were indeed at work. I am quite excited to sample the tincture once it's ready. It's not every day that we get to have Pennsylvania-grown ashwagandha!