In Sanskrit, the word shatavari translates as “the plant with a hundred roots” or “who possesses a hundred husbands”. One name a head nod to physical features of the plant, and one name a hip wiggle to the medicine this plant gives.
The Plant With a Hundred Roots: Shatavari Is one of the strangest looking herbs I’ve met. It looks deceptively like a small vine-like climber above ground, similar to asparagus (they’re in the same family). But underneath this fragile green wisp of a bush there are hundreds of tuber-like roots in a mass that could weigh up to 40kg! Simply astonishing.
Who Possesses a Hundred Husbands: Shatavari is a famous adaptogen and rasayana (traditional rejuvenative tonic) in India, most well known for being an aphrodisiac and a female reproductive tonic. It’s one of my favorite adaptogens for its nourishing and gently strengthening nature.
This beloved herb is one of our core adaptogens at Rasa and is found in all of our blends. Having the chance to meet shatavari and several shatavari growers in person in Southern India was one of the highlights of my year in 2022.
The three shatavari growers I visited in the southern Indian state of Karnataka are among the 2500 small organic-certified farmers that our main supply partner Phalada works with. The farmers have an average of 2 acres and grow a variety or herbs, pulses, and commodity crops. Shatavari is a relatively new crop for this group— most shatavari is grown in Northern India— and the farmers I visited each had a different style as they figure out the best ways to cultivate.
Sachin, Farm #1—Intercropping
Sachin greeted us as we pulled up to rows and rows of areca palms. His main source of farm income are these betal nut-producing trees and they’re spread throughout the 4 acre parcel. He decided to try intercropping shatavari and vanilla with the areca because they produce valuable extra income while taking no any extra land.
Where at first I saw just rows of areca palms I now saw the tell-tale whisps of shatavari between the rows. Everywhere— 8000 of them to be exact! I learned that shatavari needs a minimum of 18 months of growing to have a good saponin level, but 2.5 years or more is optimal. These plants were 3 years old and his patience will mean hefty roots, likely 10kg a plant on average. Our supply partner Phalada has contracted the full crop.
Sachin likes growing shatavari this way because it is very low maintenance. He fertilizes the land with a cow dung slurry 3 to 4 times a year, and waters the plants when he waters the areca palms.
Shatavari among the areca palms
Pavan, Farm #2—Fallow Field
Sachin’s friend Pavan had a field nearby and we went to see a different approach to cultivating shatavari. This field looked completely wild and untended— no neat rows, no walking paths, just bushes, weeds, small trees, and shatavari dispersed throughout.
Pavan explained that he’d normally be growing sugar cane or rice paddy in this field, but he’s trying a maintenance-free method of growing shatavari instead. For 3 years shatavari grows in this field while weeds and bushes also pop up. This method is good for the land because the land is basically fallow and able to rest. Plus, once the shatavari is harvested all the bushes get turned into the ground, a process called green manuring. The only work Pavan has to do during these three years is water the area with a sprinkler once a week.
Praveen, who works for Pavan, showed us how to harvest the plant when it’s ready— it’s a lot of work! And the roots of this one plant where probably north of 40 lbs!
Right to left: Praveen, Sachin, Pavan, with a freshly harvest portion of a shatavari plant
Parameshappa, Farm #3—Row cultivation
Farther up in the north of Karnataka was the farm of Parameshappa. This was a more conventional way of growing shatavari. The plants were in neat rows and harvesting was just being completed. While this growing method may not be as soil friendly or as good at maximizing available space as the previous two farms, it was the most efficient to harvest since there was nothing else in the field.
Upon harvest, shatavari is washed, sometimes steamed, and then peeled. Removing the skin is an important part of the process because the root won’t dry with the skin intact. After that the root is dried and then milled into the fine cut we use for our blends.
Shatavari getting washed
Rewilding the Future
It was fascinating to compare the three farms I visited and get a glimpse into the creative choices farmers have when deciding how to cultivate an herb, but the most exciting farm we visited wasn’t really a farm at all.
Shatavari, like many popular medicinal plants, used to be plentiful in the wild but is now semi-endangered. Both our main supply partners in India are experimenting with wild-simulated plots, and we got to see this unique agroforestry in action. On a walk through what felt like a natural forest, we encountered many medicinal species planted throughout the vegetation. The goal with this type of project is to understand the process and test yields and herbal potency. Hopefully someday this rewilding will yield strong stands of shatavari and a more integrated, biodiverse, and sustainable method of sourcing this plant.
Lopa expressing her undying love to a baby wild-simulated shatavari