While bumping down a dusty country road in Bangalore, I thought back to a sourcing trip I took in the mountains of Northeast China. The snowy forested landscapes of China could not be more different than the flat, dry, heat-cracked earth I was gazing at in India. But there was one salient similarity: the intensity.
Adaptogenic plants thrive on stress. In China, rhodiola and eleuthero grow in harsh, high-altitude snowy climes, while India’s most famous healing plant takes on the opposite challenge — drought and heat. The environmental stress adaptogens endure is part of what makes their chemistry so beneficial for us — we can utilize their stress-protective compounds too! I also soon learned that this special gift for thriving under stress makes ashwagandha about as perfect for farmers as an organic crop can get.
The first farm we visited was that of Rajendra, known as the King of Ashwagandha. His name, Rajendra, means “king of kings” in Sanskrit, which kinda makes sense since ashwagandha is known as the king of herbs…
Rajandra (left). Ashwagandha (front and center)
It didn’t take long to figure out how Rajendra got his nickname. He started growing ashwagandha in the southern Indian state of Karnataka during a severe drought in 2006. Now he’s the head of a farm group that produces tens of thousands of pounds of the herb!
Ashwagandha is not just drought-tolerant but drought-loving, which makes it a life-saving crop in the many regions of India prone to drought. It is the perfect organic crop— ashwagandha needs no water besides occasional rain, no fertilizer, and has no pest/animal issues. It is also a quick crop. While shatavari, another herb we source from India, takes two to three years to mature fully, ashwagandha takes only around six months. Or five months and twenty days exactly, if you’re Rajendra and your research shows that’s the optimal harvest time!
Rajendra knows everything about maximizing potency in his cultivation. In the ashwagandha market, the price depends on the percentage of withanolides in the roots. Withanolides are the main class of active compounds in ashwagandha. They look like our stress hormone cortisol, which is one way this plant can modulate our stress levels. Many ashwagandha extracts in the market are standardized to withanolide percentage. For example, the extract we use in Rasa Calm contains 10% withanolides.
Rajendra harvests after five months and twenty days to maximize withanolide content, claiming that the percentage starts to decline after that point. He also grows a particular variety that is withanolide rich. Beyond that, if it rains too much, withanolide content will be lower because of less stress.
There’s also a strategy to planting-- close planting results in one pencil-sized root per plant, with fewer side roots. This makes them much easier to harvest and process. They get about ten plants per square foot, and this farm is 25 acres, so that’s around ten million plants! When dried, each root is only two grams, so you need this type of scale to get the thousands of pounds of ashwagandha purchased by companies within India and without.
Perfect ‘pencil’ roots
As I pulled a root from the ground, I caught the signature scent of ashwagandha. Ashwagandha translates from Sanskrit as ashwa = horse and gandha = smell, or ‘horse sweat,’ though some interpret this to mean ‘the strength of a horse.’ I’d say “horse smell” captures the pungent earthiness I’ve come to love. Harvesting an ashwagandha farm this big takes more than a month, including pulling the roots, separating them from their stems, and drying them.
Akkamma separating the roots from the stems
This organic farm practices crop rotation, so after the ashwagandha harvest is done, pulses and legumes will be planted. These plants fix nitrogen in the soil and, once harvested, will have their leaves and stems turned back into the earth, a process called green manuring. The enriched land is then ready for another round of ashwagandha.
The second farm we went to was that of Balavanth. He and his son Rajat grow moringa, tulsi, ashwagandha, and more. Balavanth is a local legend in integrated organic farming. He has a test plot for four varieties of ashwagandha and is working with the local university to understand differences in yield and withanolide content.
Manesh, the farm manager (middle) and Balavant (right), with a strapping ashwagandha plant
I’ve grown ashwagandha in my home garden before (it’s a hardy plant!), but seeing this herb in its native environment, with the farmers, workers, and communities that cultivate it was relationship on a new level. Often when an herb soars in popularity there are compromises made in sustainability and quality, but with ashwagandha I saw only benefits. It acts as a powerful driver of economic prosperity in a region susceptible to drought, it is part of a system that enhances soil health, and of course, it’s incredible medicine for a stressed out world.