What is Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera)
Ashwaghanda belongs to the family solanaceae having chromosome number 2n = 48. It is one of the commercial medicinal crops under rainfed condition. The dried roots are rich source of ‘withanine’ and ‘somniferine’ (Thakur et al., 1989).
Cultivation of Ashwagandha
In the wild, Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) grows profusely in most areas of South Asia and many closely related Withania species occur as far away as Northern Africa. As a commercial crop Ashwagandha cultivation is carried out mostly in Utter Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in India and now it is also cultivated in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan Areas. It is generally grown in fields characterized by slightly basic soils that have good drainage. Light red soils are suitable for this herb. The herb grows best in areas receiving about 500-750mm rainfall and at altitudes ranging from 600 to 1200 meters above sea level. The optimal temperature range is 20-32 degrees C. Due to the hardiness of the plant, Ashwagandha has historically been grown in areas that are not well irrigated and therefore not suitable for food crops. It is a cash crop in fields that would not be suitable to produce more profitable plants. Ashwagandha cultivation is possible even in mild drought conditions.
Usage of Withania Somneifera
It is also known as Ashwaghanda in Hindi Asghand Naguri in Urdu and commonly known as Winter Cherry in English. It is mentioned as an important drug in ancient Ayurvedic literature. It is cultivated over an area of 10,780 ha with a production of 8429 tonnes in India. While the annual demand increased from 7028 tonnes (2001-02) to 9127 tonnes (2004-05) necessitating the increase in its cultivation and higher production (http://nmpb.nic.in). Ashwagandha mainly found in Rajasthan (Nagour), Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh in india and its other verieties are also found in many areas of northern & central Punjab of Pakistan.
Ashwagandha is an important cultivated medicinal crop of India. It is also well known in the traditional system of medicines of several countries for its sedative, hypnotic and antiseptic properties and occasionally the leaves and seeds are also used for medicinal purpose, root is economic part of the plant. The roots are used for curing rheumatism, dyspepsia, skin diseases, bronchitis, ulcers, sexual debility and snakebite.
Withania Somneifera grows well in sandy loam or light red soil, having pH 7.5-8.0 with good drainage. It can be cultivated between 600-1200 m altitudes. The semi-tropical areas receiving 500-750 mm rainfall are suitable for cultivation of this rained crop. The crop requires dry season during its growing period. Temperature between 200C to 350C is most suitable for cultivation. Late winter rains are conducive for the proper development of the plant roots. The crop can be sown either by broad casting or in lines. Live to line method is preferred as it increases root production and also helps in performing intercultural practices properly. The seeds are usually sown about 1-3 cm deep in June- July in nursery. A light shower after shower after sowing ensures good germination. About 500-750 gm seeds are sufficient for 1 ha field. Seeds can be treated, with Thiram or Indofil or Dithane medicinal plants - 45 (@ 3 gm/kg seed), before sowing to protect seedlings from seed borne diseases (FChandra et al, 2011).
Germination from seeds
The Ashwagandha seeds are first planted in small areas or in a nursery in lines to allow them to germinate. The seeds are sown about 2 cm deep into the soil at a distance of about 10 cm. The amount of seeds germinated should be based upon a final transplanted density of about 1kg of Ashwagandha seeds per hectare. The line method of sowing is preferred at this germination stage as it promotes the development of a health root system compared to being sown using the broad casting method. The germination is best carried out just before the arrival of the monsoon season; and a few light showers during this stage produce the optimal seedlings. Once the young plants are about 30 days old, they are ready for transplanting into the main farming fields. In these fields they are planted at a distance of approximately 60 cm into well ploughed and aerated soil. While the 30 day age of the seedlings is a guideline, in practice the transplanting correspondence to the actual arrival of the first monsoon rains.
Watering and Fertilization
Given the ultimate medicinal use of the herb, the plants are usually not fertilized. In some cases organic fertilizer is used. The fields are also usually left to natural irrigation and artificial watering is only done in severe drought conditions where the survival of the crop is in jeopardy. It is this very hardy nature of Ashwagandha cultivation that has made this sort of farming popular on otherwise unproductive land.
The new crop will be ready for harvesting in about 180 days. This usually results in a harvest around early January. The plants will start flowering from mid December onwards and it is determined if they are ready to harvest by observing the development of the red berry like fruits. The whole plant along with the roots is removed from the soil. The roots and berries are the main parts used. The plant is separated from the root about 2cm above where the aerial part begins. The berries are hand picked and separated from the plant. Both the roots and berries ate then subject to drying. The roots will most likely be cut down into smaller pieces while the berries are dried whole. Once fully dry, the roots are transferred for further processing while the berries are crushed to separate the seeds. A typical harvest is usually 350 to 400kg of dried Ashwagandha root per 1 hectare of land.