Go wild

Ashwagandha that grows in the wild fights illness better

By Tiasa Adhya
Published: Sunday 31 October 2010

imageIT IS an aphrodisiac. Treats fatigue and bone weakness. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) occupies a prominent position in traditional health systems like Ayurveda.

In India the medicinal plant is cultivated on 4,000 hectares, mainly in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. But when it comes to being the most effective, a group of researchers claims, it is the wild variety.

Scientists from the Directorate of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Research, Gujarat, said wild ashwagandha is more effective in fighting health problems than its cultivated varieties like jawahar ashwagandha. In their study, the researchers used a technique called high performance liquid chromatography, which separates components of a mixture and helps in their identification. The wild form’s chemical profile is superior to that of jawahar variety, the researchers reported in the September 10 issue of Current Science.

One of the reasons of superior profile is that wild ashwagandha exhibits crosspollination, according to Satyabrata Maiti, who led the study. This enriches genetic diversity. In cultivated varieties self-pollination is rampant. This narrows genetic variation and results in weaker offspring. Maiti cautioned it will require more studies to confirm that genetic diversity makes wild ashwagandha superior.

Cultivated ashwagandha is preferred in markets because its roots are brittle and can be easily converted into powder. Wild ashwagandha’s roots are more fibrous than brittle. Maiti, though, said quality is more important. He argued that the fine powder quality of cultivated ashwagandha can be achieved in wild forms by using advanced machinery.

Besides, biomass production is rapid in wild ashwagandha because it has a higher rate of photosynthesis that helps in preparing food. The wild variety is readily available in markets since it is perennial. The cultivated varieties are in full bloom only during December- February.

Mnoo Parbhia, retired professor of biosciences and ecology at South Gujarat University in Surat, cautioned, wild ashwagandha is very strong, and if not diluted properly it might lead to adverse effects.

Mukul Das, an Ayurvedic practitioner based in Kolkata, said wild ashwagandha is losing ground because of its destruction due to encroachment. The wild plants are often propagated by bird droppings in crop fields where they are regarded as weeds, Das said.

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