Ashwagandha-an Indian Ginseng

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Prof (Dr) R D Gupta
Ashwagandha or Ashwgandha is one of the medicinal plant, which has been prioritised by the National Medical Plants Board for its commercial cultivation. Used as a substitute for Ginseng, Ashwagandha is well known in many other Indian languages. Apart from the name Ashwagandha, it is also called Rape seed/ Winter cherry, Nagori, Asans, Bajiganda (Sharma et al. 2006). It belongs to Solanaceae family with botanical name as Withania somnifera. This plant occurs naturally in drier regions of India but can also be cultivated. Although the plants are usually 30 to 75 cm high yet they may attain their height upto 1.5 m. All parts of plant i.e., roots, leaves, fruits and seeds are used as medicines for curing a number of diseases. Presently, its use has been widely promoted by pharmaceutical companies for aphrodisiac, anti-aging and nerving tonic properties. Western herbalists refer Ashwagandha as Ayurvedic Ginseng because of its reputation for increasing energy, strength and stamina.
Ashwagandha plant contains a large variety of alkaloids and withaniols (0.13 to 0.68 per cent). Nicotine, somniferine, somniferenine, somine, ithamine, withanamine etc are some of the examples in this regard. Withaniols and pseudo-withanine are therapeutically very important. The leaves of this plant contain anaferine but are not marketed commercially .The roots of cultivated crop contains upto 50 per cent Alkaloidd, while roots of wild plants are rich in 3-trophyl trigolate. Apart from the above, a pale yellow crystalline substance having antibiotic properties has also been isolated from the leaves of this plant. It contains a resin, fat and colouring matter. A new alkaloid withasomnine has been isolated. Withasomnine is phenyl-1-5-trimethylene pyrazole.
All parts of plant are used in medicines and fruit has the property of coagulating milk. However, roots of Ashwagandha are well-known Indian drug used in Ayurvedic and Unani medicines in treatment of chronic joint diseases, general debility, neutral disorders and gynaecological problems.
i) It is used as a sedative, a diuretic, a rejuvenating tonic, an anti-inflammatory agent and ‘adaptogen’ (endurance enhancer), ii) It is useful in leucoderma, constipation, sexual weaknesses, insomnia, nervous disorder. iii) Ashwagandha can be used to cure asthma, senility, cardiac, feroale disorders, debility and old-age. iv) Presently, it has been widely used by the pharmaceutical companies for its unit aging and nervine tonic properties. v) Based on this plant, there are so many tonic preparations in the market.
vi) Many western herbalists refer to Ashwagandha as “Ayurvedic Ginsing” because of its Q for
increasing energy, strength and stamina. vii) It has the ability to relieve from the stress.
viii) Apart from sexual and general weakness, Ashwagandha is useful in preventing rheumatism.
ix) It acts as a narcotic and removes functional obstructions of body. x) The root powder is applied locally on ulcers and inflammations. xi) The antibiotic and antibacterial activity of the roots and leaves has been experimentally proved. xii) It is an important ingredient of 31 energy capsules. xiii) Ashwagandha provides remedy for dropsy, dyspepsia, hiccup, joint pains, reduces neurosis
and inflammations in the lungs. xiv) WHO has recommended list of 42 medicinal plants in the Modern System of medicines and Ashwagandha is one of them. xv) Some special Ayurvedic preparations made from Ashwagandha are Zero Forte (DRDO) which is useful for persons working in high altitude areas such as Leh.
A small or middle-sized undershrub is upto 1.5 m high. The stem and branches are covered with minute star-shaped hair. Leaves are upto 10 cm long, ovate in shape with hair like branches. Flowers are small, pale green in colour and about 1 cm in length. Few Flowers are borne together in short axillary clusters. Fruits are 6 mm in diameter, red in colour and globose and smooth in shape. These are enclosed in the inflated and membranous calyx.
The plant occurs in drier regions naturally and is also cultivated. In India, it is cultivated in warm and arid climates. It also occurs in Middle East countries and parts of Africa. It is point to mention that Ashwagandha does not establish its roots in the hilly and Mountainous areas. It requires light and well-drained soils for formation of thick roots. Thus, it is ideally suited for Kandi belt of Jammu as well as that of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Chandigarh.
Climatic and soil requirement
Semi-arid type of climate is considered the best for its growth. Excessive Humidity and shady conditions slow down its growth.
Ashwagandha can be grown over a wide variety of soils ranging from gravelly loamy Sand to sandy loam soils. Soil should be well drained with medium fertility and normal soil reaction (pH 6.5 to 7.5). Under Kalakote conditions, the plant has shown very good growth on sandy, dry loose textured soils.
Ashwagandha is cultivated through seeds by broadcast. It can also be raised through transplanting. The seeds should be placed about 1 cm deep in the soil which take about 12-15 days to germinate. Seeds are sown about 25 cm apart rows to facilitate hand weeding.
Seedlings from plant nursery are transplanted by maintaining 60 cm distance from plant-to-plant and 60 cm from row-to-row.
About 10 to 15 Kg seed is required for an hectare of the land by broadcast method of sowing. For nursery sowing, 5 Kg seed is sufficient for an hectare.
Sowing is usually done during rainy season i.e., ending June to July or August. Plant nursery can be raised in mid-July and transplanting should be done during mid of August. However, depending upon rains, the transplanting can be done upto first week of September.
The plant does not need much after care except some weeding during initial stages. In direct sown crop, thinning should be done after 25 to 30 days of sowing by maintaining plant population 60-70 plants m2 .One weeding cum hoeing is essential to the crop about 2 months after thinning. Over population of plants should be avoided. Each plant should get proper sunlight and air.
Generally, no chemical fertilizer is applied if sufficient amount of farm yard manure (10 to 15 t ha-1) has been applied. However, according to Sharma et al.(2006), if 35 kg each of N and P2O5 ha-1 is applied, through urea (44 kg) and DAP (66 kg),The crop gives good yield.
Very little irrigation is needed for the crop. However, if irrigation facilities are available, root formation and flowering stages are the two critical periods when the crop should be irrigated. Major insect pest and disease are aphid and blight. These can be controlled by using Neem based botanic pesticide.
By the end of November, the plants begin to shed the leaves and the Seeds become ripened during December to January. Roots of the plants should be dug in the Early February to mid of March. When the fruits turn reddish and lower leaves have completely dried. These are thoroughly cleaned to get rid them of all the soil. The roots should be cut into 7.5 to 10 cm long pieces and are then dried in the shade. The pieces of roots are then graded according to their thickness. The thicker ones are graded better and Fetch higher price. The roots are wrapped in gunny bags and must be stored in well Ventilated cool godown for a long period to maintain the quality.
The duration of the crop is 6-9 months. About 1000 to 1500 kg is the yield of dried roots per hectare. There is reasonable income as Ashwagandha is cultivated in marginal land. Generally, there is no requirement for any other cash inputs except for purchase of seed.
(The author is former Chief Scientist KVK cum Associated Dean, SKUAST, Jammu)