Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Solaneae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
Eight to ten species are currently recognized in the genus Withania, most of which occur in North Africa and the neighboring regions of Eurasia (D’Arcy 1991, 79*; Hepper 1991; Symon 1991, 146*).
Two morphologically and geographically distinct varieties or forms of Withania somnifera are distinguished in India. One form with a knotty rootstock occurs in the Indus valley. The other form, which has a fleshy root that can take on an anthropomorphic appearance, is found in Punjab and Rajasthan (Kumaraswamy 1985, 113).
Because of the various mixtures of withanolides, the species is sometimes subdivided into chemotypes (Eastwood et al. 1980).
Physalis somnifera L.
Solanum somniferum nom. nud.
Agol (Ethiopian), ambubi, amkuram kizhangu (Dravidian languages, “beautiful horse root”), amukkara, asgandh (Hindi), ashvaganda, ashwagandha, aswagandha, beautiful horse root, bûdîdân, hajarat el dib (Arabic, “wolf tree”), harhumbashir (Assyrian, “red coral”), henbane,327 jangida, kakink (Pakistan), kuthmithi, marjân (modern Arabic, “coral”), rasbhari, salztiegel, schlafbeere, schlaffbeeren, schlafmachende schlute, sekran (Syrian, “inebriant”), slaepcruydt, solanum somniferum, timbutti eqli (Assyrian, “ring of the field” or “cantharides”), ‘ubâd (Arabic/Yemen), winterkirsche
If the interpretation of the Assyrian name as ashwagandha is correct, the plant was in use for medicinal and narcotic purposes in Mesopotamia (Thompson 1949, 216*). It was well known in ancient Egypt (Germer 1985, 167*), and it was characterized and classified as a sakrân, “inebriant,” in Old Arabic. The plant is regarded as a hypnotic and sedative throughout its entire range of distribution (Hooper 1937, 186*). It is possible that the plant was seen as a form of “sleeping strychnos” during late antiquity, e.g., by Pliny (21.180) (cf. Datura stramonium, Solanum spp., Strychnos nux-vomica). It may have been identical to the mysterious haliacacabon.
It has been claimed that the wondrous root jangida, whose praises were sung in the Vedic scriptures—especially the Atharva Veda—and which was regarded as a panacea, amulet, magical agent, and aphrodisiac, is identical to Withania somnifera (Kumaraswamy 1985).
The plant has been known in Europe since at least the sixteenth century, for it is described and pictured in most of the herbals written by the fathers of botany.
The fruits of Withania somnifera.
The flowering herbage of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).
Ashwagandha is originally from North Africa and is very common throughout Iraq (Al-Hindawi et al. 1992). It also occurs in Pakistan and northern India. In China, the plant is a popular ornamental (Lu 1986, 81*).
Propagation is performed via the seeds, which are best pregerminated before planting. Water well at first, then water in moderation. Because the plant does not tolerate any frost, in cold climates it should be kept inside in a pot during the winter. As a houseplant, ashwagandha can blossom several times a year.
This perennial, branchy, herbaceous plant can grow to more than 1 meter in height (or in rare cases up to 2.5 meters), but usually it remains a small bush. The small, oval leaves are alternate. The tiny flowers have greenish calyxes and white pistils. They are attached to the upper branches close to the main stem. The red berry fruits (hence the ancient Assyrian name harhumbashir, “red coral”; Thompson 1949, 215*) are surrounded by an inflated calyx (similar to Physalis spp.) so that they resemble small lanterns. The small, orange-yellow seeds are round, flat, and 1 to 2 mm in length. The thin, smooth roots can grow 30 to 40 cm long and 1 to 2 cm thick.
Ashwagandha can be confused with other members of the genus, in particular the Mediterranean Withania frutescens (L.) Pauq. and the Canary Island Withania aristata (Ait.) Pauq. It also can be confused with smaller members of the genus Physalis spp. (cf. halicacabon).
Preparation and Dosage
The root is dried and left whole or finely ground. The powder can be poured into gelatin capsules for ingestion. A tonic and sedative tea can be prepared by boiling the root cortex for a few minutes. The root powder can be boiled in milk together with honey and pippali (Piper longum; cf. Piper spp.).
In Ayurvedic medicine, a single dosage consists of 250 mg to 1 g of the powdered root (Lad and Frawley 1987, 227*). Pronounced antistress effects occur at dosages of 100 mg of root powder per kg of body weight (Grandhi et al. 1994, 134*).
Tonic effects can be attained by chewing a piece of root the length of half a finger every day. The root has a not-unpleasant taste somewhat reminiscent of that of licorice.
Ancient Arabs used the root as a tonic, aphrodisiac, and inebriant. Unfortunately, no information about their ritual use has come down to us.
Sushruta, the Indian physician and cofounder of Ayurveda, praised the root as a rasayana (an alchemical elixir) and as a vajikarana (aphrodisiac) with few equals. For this reason, ashwagandha (sometimes in combination with Cannabis indica) was used in sexual magic and tantric rituals as an aid in supporting the required duration of erections. The vaidyas (folk healers) still prepare a love drink from the root that is said to attract the opposite sex and make one ready for love (Kumaraswamy 1985, 114, 116, 119).
In Pakistan, the leaves of panirbad, the closely related Withania coagulans (Stocks) Dun. [syn. Puneeria coagulans Stocks], are used (presumably smoked) as an inebriant (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 43*). In India, the fruits are used to coagulate milk when rennet cannot be used in rituals and ceremonies for religious reasons (Macmillan 1991, 422*).
The remains of several Egyptian flower garlands have been found in El Faiyûm that date to late antiquity and incorporate ashwagandha fruits (Germer 1985, 167*).
The root was used as a substitute for mandrake (see Mandragora officarum).
The Assyrians used the root as a fumigant, directing the smoke onto painful teeth (cf. incense). This use is similar to the ways in which they used henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) (Thompson 1949, 216*). In Yemen, the root is still used for treating toothaches (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 102 f.*).
In the folk medicine of the inhabitants of the Golan Heights and the Negev Desert, the leaves, and less frequently the fruits, are applied externally as a paste and massaged into the skin to treat open wounds, swelling, rheumatism, and external inflammation (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 16*).
In Africa, the root is given to children as a tranquilizer (Schuldes 1995, 77*). In Ethiopia, crushed leaves are smeared onto arthritic joints (Wilson and Mariam 1979, 33*).
In Baluchistan (Pakistan), the root cortex is powdered, mixed with water, and kneaded to a paste that is applied to treat wounds (Goodman and Gharfoor 1992, 42*). In India, the herbage is smoked to soothe coughing and asthma (cf. smoking blends) (Macmillan 1991, 425*).
An early illustration of the “sleep-inducing nightshade” (Withania somnifera). (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633*)
“Ashwagandha is a good food for weak pregnant women; it helps to stabilize the fetus. It also regenerates the hormonal system, promotes healing of tissues, and can be used externally on wounds, sores, etc.”
DAVID FRAWLEY AND VASANT LAD THE YOGA OF HERBS
Ashwagandha has a significance in Ayurvedic medicine that is similar to that of ginseng (Panax ginseng) in Chinese herbalism. Ashwagandha is regarded as a “rejuvenative herb”; “sattvic in quality, it is one of the best herbs for the mind upon which it is nurturing and clarifying. It is calming and promotes deep, dreamless sleep” (Frawley and Lad 2001, 161).
The plant contains steroid lactones, somniferin, withaferin A, and various steroids (Al-Hindawi et al. 1989, 167). The root contains approximately 2.8% steroid lactones, so-called withanolides, and also starch (Grandhi et al. 1994:134). The new withanolides withasomnilide, withasomniferanolide, somniferanolide, somniferawithanolide, and somniwithanolide were discovered in the stem bark of a sample from India (Ali et al. 1997).
The effects of the root are described as tranquilizing, sedative, and generally tonic. An aqueous extract of the root has antistress effects similar to those of ginseng (Panax ginseng) (Grandhi et al. 1994, 134). The antiserotinergic activity results in a stimulation of the appetite. An alcohol extract of the aboveground herbage has quite potent anti-inflammatory properties, primarily as a result of the steroids that are present, especially withaferin A (Al-Hindawi et al. 1989, 167; 1992). No toxic side effects have been reported to date, even when the plant was used during pregnancy (Grandhi et al. 1994, 132). The information concerning inebriating effects is sporadic and unreliable.
Commercial Forms and Regulations
The plant is not subject to any legal restrictions and is freely available. Although the root is difficult to obtain in Europe, it can be obtained in any herb shop in India.
Young plants can be purchased from sources offering ethnobotanical plants and from specialized nurseries.
See also the entry for withanolides.
Ali, Mohammed, Mohammed Shuaib, and Shahid Husain Ansari. 1997. Withanolides from the stem bark of Withania somnifera. Phytochemistry 44 (6): 1163–68.
Eastwood, Frank W., Isaac Kirson, David Lavie, and Arieh Abraham. 1980. New withanolides from a cross of South African chemotype by chemotype II (Israel) in Withania somnifera. Phytochemistry 19:1503–7.
Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. 2001. The yoga of herbs: An Ayurvedic guide to herbal medicine. 2nd ed. Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus Press.
Grandhi, Anuradha, A. M. Mujumdar, and Bhushan Patwardhan. 1994. A comparative pharmacological investigation of ashwagandha and ginseng. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 44:131–35. (Lists additional literature.)
Hepper, F. Nigel. 1991. Old World Withania (Solanaceae): A taxonomic review and key to species. In Solanaceae III: Taxonomy, chemistry, evolution, ed. Hawkes, Lester, Nee, and Estrada, 211 ff. London: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Linnean Society.
Hindawi, Muhaned K. al-, Ishan H. S. Al-Deen, May H. A. Nabi, and Mudafar A. Ismail. 1989. Anti-inflammatory activity of some Iraqi plants using intact rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 26:163–68.
Hindawi, Muhaned K. al-, Saadia H. Al-Khafaji, and May H. Abdul-Nabi. 1992. Anti-granuloma activity of Iraqi Withania somnifera. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 37:113–16.
Kumaraswamy, R. 1985. Ethnopharmacognostical studies of the Vedic jangida and the siddha kattuchooti as the Indian mandrake of the ancient past. In Ethnobotanik, special issue, Curare 3:109–20.
Nittala, S. S., V. van den Velde et al. 1981. Chlorinated withanoloides from Withania somnifera and Acnistus breviflorus. Phytochemistry 20:2547.
Sour, K. Y. 1980. Phytochemical investigation of Withania somnifera grown in Iraq. MSc thesis, University of Baghdad.
Black henbane Hyoscyamus niger L. (from Giftgewächse [Poisonous Plants], 1875).