Ashwagandha is a pretty special shrub, growing in compact spaces, providing plenty of interest in the garden as well as the kitchen, with its striking crinkled foliage and bright red fruit adorning the branches in fall.
While its medical uses have never been scientifically proven, there are swathes of people across the world who swear by the root extract as a means to a better night’s sleep.
Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry
Outdoors, protect from frosts
Full sun, bright light
Green to white
Mid to late summer
Edible fruit in the fall
Poisonous for Pets:
Non-toxic to cats and dogs
If you want to grow your own at home, it’s surprisingly easy, but you’ll need space to store it over winter in colder zones.
Our guide, packed growing tips for ashwagandha, and information on overwintering these half-hardy shrubs, will make sure you get every possible benefit from these magical plants.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is the common name for Withania somnifera, a species of flowering shrub with bright bluey-green crinkled foliage. It typically grows to about 1m tall and grows best in containers, where this tropical shrub can be overwintered indoors or in greenhouses away from frosts.
Traditionally, Ashwagandha has been used as a cure for insomnia but, like most herbal remedies, has a whole host of other potential uses; from lowering blood sugar to improving sexual function and enhancing memory and focus.
Despite this long list of potential benefits, there are very few scientifically proven uses for the herb, but anecdotally it's worth keeping in mind as an alternative to other insomnia supports like valerian.
Withania Somnifera's Natural Habitat
Ashwagandha is native to India, the Middle East, and most of northern Africa. It is part of the Solanaceae family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, but more closely related to nightshade.
Is Ashwagandha Edible?
Like most members of the Solanaceae family, Ashwagandha has poisonous stems and leaves thanks to a group of chemicals known as solenoids. However, like tomatoes, the berries are edible, and like potatoes, the root is edible too.
The berries have a distinctly bitter taste and look similar to cherry tomatoes when harvested but grow from individual flowers at the end of a branch, rather than on trusses.
Ashwagandha roots have a bitter, earthy flavor profile which really needs to be mixed with honey or powerful spices to cover the taste.
Uses for Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha’s most common use is as a sleep inducer. The roots can be used to create a dried extraction and are commonly sold in health food stores as a sleep support tablet.
I’m not a scientist and have no medical training, so can’t speak to the truth of its success, and would not suggest replacing prescription medication with herbal remedies in any case.
However, from personal experience, ashwagandha root tea does help to support a good night’s sleep, especially in conjunction with other herbal remedies like valerian.
Guide to Growing Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha can be grown from seeds or stem cuttings in early spring, but by far the easiest method is to buy young plants from a local nursery, where you can inspect the plant’s health up close and get a better idea of its size and shape.
Remember that Ashwagandha grows in tropical and subtropical climates, and treat it accordingly, only planting it in the ground if you live in warmer parts of the country where frost is unlikely and winter temperatures won’t drop below 60°F.
How to Plant Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha needs fairly similar conditions to tomatoes, but as a perennial shrub copes much better with drier conditions. Aim for fertile, nitrogen-rich soil, with plenty of drainage, and make sure there is plenty of space for the roots to grow down as well as out.
Start by digging a hole that’s twice the size of the pot, and two to three times deeper. Ashwagandha roots are the main harvestable part of the plant, so providing a free root run is essential.
Light, well-drained but fertile soil will get Ashwagandha off to a good start, after that, it’s all about controlling the nutrients on an annual basis, with mulches and fertilizers.
Aim for quite sandy soil, or mix grit and vermiculite through your compost to improve drainage. Anything between 5-7 pH is fine, but 6.5 is perfect as the gentle acidity will help nutrients filter through the root system more efficiently.
The most important consideration when planting any Ashwagandha is light. They need at least 6 hours of direct sun every day, but 8 is ideal. Choose a bright, sunny location with reasonable shelter from the wind, and your plant should grow quite happily for many years in warmer climates.
In cooler climates, aim for 8 hours of direct sunlight per day as a minimum, and plant Ashwagandha in a pot so it can be brought inside or into a greenhouse over winter to sit dormant.
Ashwagandha needs temperatures above 60°F at all times. Dropping below that for 48 hours will kill off the top growth prematurely, and can lead to root rot as the top growth rots back.
Aim for temperatures between 65°F and 80°F where possible in the summer months.
Container size and spacing
Ashwagandha is one of the few shrubby plants that does not need any root restriction. As long as you provide loose, well-drained soil, where water can’t sit or saturate there is very little chance of root rot.
Choose a container that is at least three times the size of any ashwagandha and a minimum of 1 ft across by 1 ft deep to accommodate its generous roots.
Water and drainage
Like any shrub, perennial, or tree, it’s worth watering ashwagandha generously when it is initially planted to provide proper contact between the roots and the compost. After that, they require very little ongoing water and are incredibly drought-tolerant.
However, I personally water mine (which are in greenhouses all year round due to cold climates) once every week to keep the soil evenly moist which supports strong root development.
How to Propagate Ashwagandha
The most common way to propagate ashwagandha is from seed, but once you’ve got an established plant you can take cuttings really easily in spring from the new growth. In the guide below, I’ll share my own methods for propagating these fast-growing plants.
Propagating ashwagandha from seed
Propagating ashwagandha from seed is super simple, and the seeds are readily available online. You can plant ashwagandha seeds at any time of year, but they are triggered into germination by temperature, so you’ll need to raise the temperature of your soil up to about 70°F.
Start by filling small plastic pots with seed compost, and planting two seeds per pot. Then place them on a heated propagator or a sunny windowsill in late spring if the temperature is high enough.
After about two weeks with lightly moistened soil, they will germinate. After about a month, thin out your seedlings so you have only the strongest plant left in each pot, and allow them to grow on until they are ready to plant into larger containers.
Ashwagandha propagation from cuttings
If you have an established plant, you can grow cuttings any time in spring before flowering starts, or in summer by pruning in advance.
To trigger the growth of good cutting material in summer, simply cut back a flowering branch to a healthy pair of leaves. The resulting stem can be used for cuttings, just the same as the spring cuttings method below.
- To take Ashwagandha cuttings in spring, cut a healthy stem back to a pair of leaves.
- Trim your cutting so the base is just below a leaf node, then strip the lower leaves, leaving about 10-15cm of clear stem.
- Insert the stem into well-drained compost, mixed with perlite in equal measure.
- Water the container and place it out or direct light, but in a warm spot or cold frame for 2-3 weeks.
- Roots will form pretty quickly, and with any luck, you’ll have a reasonably sized plant, ready to over winter indoors by the end of fall.
Caring for Winter Cherry
Caring for mature ashwagandha differs slightly depending on where you live. In cooler climates, you’ll almost definitely end up with a completely bare plant through winter, while in warmer parts of the country where winters never drop below 65°F Ashwagandhas can happily hold their leaves and provide ornamental benefits.
Even in my greenhouse, winter temperatures can be harsh, so I cut my ashwagandha plants back to about 4” above ground level every winter and mulch over the soil with organic compost. (Make your own organic compost with the help of our garden composter guide.)
This helps to protect the plants and conserve moisture so I don’t need to water at all over winter. Then in spring, the compost acts as an instant fertilizer, triggering plants back into growth as soon as the temperatures rise above 65°F.
What Fertilizer to Use
Any basic tomato feed works for Ashwagandha. They have a near identical set of nutrient requirements, with a touch more nitrogen for root growth.
A good mulch is often enough to feed Ashwagandha, but if your plants are showing signs of weakness, a general-purpose tomato feed or diluted liquid seaweed provides balanced nutrients once a month.
Other than cutting away any dead, damaged, or diseased growth, there’s no need to cut back ashwagandha. They grow into a bush form naturally but can be encouraged outwards by pinching out any leading stems caused by unusually warm springs.
If you don’t want to grow ashwagandha for harvest, it’s worth repotting it once every three years until it reaches its mature size. A 2ftx2ft pot is big enough for even a fully grown ashwagandha in any climate though, so if your plant’s roots are starting to constrict, take it out of its container and prune the roots back to reinvigorate them.
In most climates, Ashwagandha is best overwintered indoors, or in greenhouses where the temperature can be controlled. During this time, do not water or feed your plants as the moisture will simply sit and stagnate in the soil, potentially rotting plant roots.
How to Harvest Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha roots and berries both take a little bit of preparation, but first, we need to know how and when to harvest them!
Harvesting Ashwagandha Berries
Ashwagandha berries are held in parcels, similar to physalis, like tiny lanterns. When the papery outer skin starts to open, it reveals a bright orangery-red berry that’s ready to pick straight away. You can eat them raw, with all the same benefits but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Raw ashwagandha berries are insanely bitter, and not at all pleasant, so consider drying them and then crushing them in a pestle and mortar to sprinkle over other food, mix through butter, or extract the seeds to grow more plants or eat once they’ve naturally dehydrated.
Keep in mind that, while edible, ashwagandha berries are not as useful as a herbal remedy, and are a very effective diuretic (good for flushing you out, but not much else).
Preparing Ashwagandha Roots
Ashwagandha’s roots are the most valuable part of the plant, and can be harvested at any time of year, but are best dug up in winter. Leave 2/3 of the roots in place so your plants can be regrown each year, and take about 1/3 of the thicker roots before repotting your plants.
Once harvested, you can dry ashwagandha roots in the oven on low heat, on a windowsill, or just let them dry slowly somewhere cool and dark. The trick in all cases is slow and controlled dehydration to preserve the active parts of the root.
Once dried, it can be steeped in tea, ground and dissolved, cooked into warm milk, or just chewed. Whatever way you eat it, you’ll need something sweet to counter the bitterness, but as a homegrown sleep remedy, it’s worth trying!
Ashwagandha Pests and Diseases
Cutworms are a general name for the large caterpillars of several different moth species, but most commonly the Agrotis genus. They have spikes above their rear end and are voracious leaf feeders, often consuming several leaves per day, per caterpillar.
The best way to get rid of them is to simply pick them off and dispose of them on the bird table. As Ashwagandha is a consumable or medicinal plant, chemical pesticides should always be avoided.
Lead miners, small caterpillars which eat channels within the leaves, cause defoliation, and fungal problems as a result of excessive leaf damage. They are hard to spot, but if you notice patches of gray or brown across the foliage, or sections of foliage becoming slightly transparent, check them against the light. If there are channels through the leaf, you’ve got leaf miners.
Discard any affected leaves, and treat plants with organic topical pesticides like neem oil.
Aphids & Mealybugs
Like 99% of garden plants, aphids, and mealybugs will flock to the new growth. These tiny insects come in different colors and sizes and can cause stunted growth if they gather in large enough numbers in spring.
Remove them with a strong water jet, and if the problem persists, treat the foliage and new shoots with neem oil in the morning to avoid harming beneficial insects and pollinators.
The only common diseases suffered by Ashwagandha are caused by overwatering, over-humidifying, and pests, which can add to high humidity problems. Fusarium solani is a root fungus carried in the soil and is particularly hard to treat.
If your soil is damp, but the top growth looks dry, stop watering and allow the plant’s roots to dry out for a week. If the problem continues to develop, dig up your plant and remove any damaged roots before repotting in fresh compost and removing any damaged top growth.
Ashwagandha Frequently Asked Questions
Is ashwagandha safe to use as a medicine?
Like all herbal remedies, Ashwagandha should not be used as a substitute for prescribed medication. However, it is considered a safe herbal remedy for mood and sleep disorders.
If your condition continues, consult a doctor for more advice.
How long does ashwagandha root take to work?
Ashwagandha root can take different amounts of time to show its effects. For most conditions, particularly sleep and mood disorders, Ashwagandha can take two weeks of regular dosages to show benefits.
Is ashwagandha safe for people with heart conditions?
Despite being advised as a medication for blood pressure, regular ashwagandha users recognize irregular heartbeats, so if you have any pre-existing heart conditions, consult a doctor before taking ashwagandha root or ashwagandha root extract.
Wrapping Up Our Ashwagandha Growing and Care Guide
There aren’t many tropical plants that grow quite so happily as a perennial shrub in as many climates as ashwagandha. Obviously in cooler places, it needs protecting over winter, but the benefits are worth the work.
For a home-grown sleep remedy that is easy to grow, and looks good in the garden for most of the year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason not to grow Ashwagandha.