Withania somnifera, which translates in Assyrian to ashwangandha, was suspected to be widely used back in Mesopotamia for its medicinal and narcotic properties. A member of the Nightshade Family, it was well known in ancient Egypt and characterized and classified as a sakrân intoxicant in Old Arabic. It was widely speculated that Withania somnifera was the fabled and mysterious halacacabon, or “Salt Jar,” a legendary, mythical psychoactive plant known as trychnos or strychnos, that which provokes sleep.
A perennial plant, Withania somnifera is branchy and herbaceous and can grow up to more than a (meter) in height; it can, on occasion, reach a height of up to several meters. However, on average it remains a compact bush. It has small, alternate, oval-shaped leaves and tiny flowers with light green calyxes and white pistils. They bloom near the upper levels of the branch, close to the core stem. Its red berry fruits, known appropriately in ancient Assyrian as harhumbashir, or “red coral,” are encased by an inflated calyx that resemble small lanterns. The fruits contain tiny seeds which are orange-yellow in color, and round and flat in shape.
Numerous claims tout Withania somnifera as a twin to the wondrous root jangida, whose praises were sung in the Vedic medical system – especially in the Arthava Veda – as having strong powers as a panacea, amulet, magical agent and aphrodisiac. Sushruta, the Indian physician and cofounder of the Ayurvedic system, hailed the root as “rasayana,” an alchemical elixir, and as a “vajikarana,” an aphrodisiac, sometimes used in combination with Cannabis sativa. For this reason, ashwangandha was employed in sexual magic and tantric rituals as an aid in sustaining the vital duration of erections. Folk healers known as vaidyas still prepare a love potion from the root. Its effects are said to attract the opposite sex and make one ready for love.
The ancient Arabs also used the root as a narcotic, a health tonic and aphrodisiac. In Pakistan, the leaves of the closely related Withania coagluans were presumably smoked as a means to become intoxicated. In India, the fruits are used to coagulate milk when rennet cannot be used in rituals and ceremonies for religious reasons.
The remains of several Egyptian flower garlands that contain ashwangandha have been found in El Faiyűm that date back to late antiquity. Originally from North Africa and is commonly found throughout Iraq, Pakistan and northern India. On can trace the plant’s history in Europe back to the sixteenth century, for ashwangandha is described and pictured in most of the herbal writings by the fathers of botany. Withania somnifera is to this day a very popular ornamental plant in China.
The Assyrians used the root as a fumigant, channeling the incense smoke onto painful teeth. This use is similar to the ways in which they used black henbane (Hyoscymus niger). In modern day Yemin, ashwangandha root is still used to treat toothaches. Folk medicine uses a paste created from grinding ashwangandha leaves to a pulp, and on occasion the fruits will also be added into this pulpy mixture, then applied topically and massaged into the skin to treat open wounds, swelling, rheumatism and external inflammation.
In Africa, the root is given to children as a tranquilizer, and to soothe teething pain. In India, the herbage is smoked to soothe coughing and asthma. A section of Pakistan employs the root cortex as a powder, then mixes it with water. This mixture is then kneaded into a paste which is used to treat, disinfect and heal wounds. In Ethiopia, crushed Withania somnifera leaves are smeared onto arthritic joints.
The special significance of ashwangandha in Ayurvedic medicine is similar to the way that ginseng is highly valued in Chinese herbal medicine. Ashwangandha is prized as a “rejuvenating herb.” “Sattvic” in quality, it is regarded as one of the best herbs for the mind, upon which it has nurturing and clarifying affects. The effects of the root are also said to be tranquilizing and sedating. It is soothing and relaxing and promotes a deep, dreamless sleep.
The liquid extract of the root has anti-stress effects similar to that of ginseng. The antiserotinergic activity results in the stimulation of appetite. An alcohol extract of the aboveground herbage has quite potent anti-inflammatory properties, primarily as a result of the steroids that are present in the plant, especially withaferin A. No toxic side effects have reported to date, even when the plant is used during pregnancy.
In addition to withaferin A, Withania somnifera contains lactones, somniferin and various other steroids. Ashwangandha root contains approximately 2.8% steroid lactone, the purported withnolides, and also starch. The new withnolides withasomnilide, withasomniferanolide, somniferanolide, somniferawithanolide and somniwithanolide were discovered in the stem bark of a sample from India.
The psychoactive parts of the plant are the root and the aboveground herbage. To make a preparation from the root, one would dry it out, then either leave it whole or grind it into a fine powder. The powder can be poured into gelatin capsules and ingested. A tonic or sedative tea can be made by boiling the root cortex for a few minutes. The root powder can boiled in milk together with honey and pippali (Piper longum).
In Ayurvedic medicine, a singe dosage consists of 250mg to one gram of the powdered root. Definite, pronounced effects occur at dosages of 100mg of root powder per KILOGRAM of weight. Tonic effects can be achieved by chewing a piece of root the length of half a finger, each and every day. The root has a not-unpleasant taste slightly reminiscent of licorice. The root has been used historically as a substitute for mandrake (Mandragora officarum).
Propagation of Withania somnifera is achieved by way of the seeds, which are best pregerminated before planting. Water well at first, then taper off to watering in moderation. Ashwangandha does not tolerate any frost, therefore in colder climates it should be kept indoors in a container during the winter. As a houseplant, it thrives and can blossom several times per year.
Ashwangandha is often confused with other members of the Nightshade Family, in particular the Mediterranean Withania frutescens and the Canary Island Withania aristata. Ashwangandha is known by many folk names including the Ethiopians’ Agol, the Hindi asgandha, kuthmithi, timbutti eqli which in Assyrian translates to “ring of the field,” and winterkirsche, among many others.