Withania somnifera, known commonly as ashwagandha, Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, or winter cherry, is a plant in the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Several other species in the genus Withania are morphologically similar. Although commonly used as a medicinal herb in Ayurvedic medicine, there is no high-quality clinical evidence that it has any biological effect.
This species is a short, tender perennial shrub growing 35–75 cm (14–30 in) tall. Tomentose branches extend radially from a central stem. Leaves are dull green, elliptic, usually up to 10–12 cm (4 to 5 in) long. The flowers are small, green and bell-shaped. The ripe fruit is orange-red.
The species name somnifera means "sleep-inducing" in Latin. The name, ashwagandha, is a combination of the word ashva, meaning horse, and gandha, meaning smell, reflecting that the root has a strong horse-like odor.
Withania somnifera is cultivated in many of the drier regions of India, such as Mandsaur District of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Kerala and Rajasthan. It is also found in Nepal, China and Yemen.
Withania somnifera is prone to several pests and diseases. Leaf spot disease caused by Alternaria alternata is the most prevalent disease, which is most severe in the plains of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. Biodeterioration of its pharmaceutically active components during leaf spot disease has been reported. The Choanephora cucurbitarum causes a stem and leaf rot of Withania somnifera. A treehopper feeds on the apical portions of the stem, making them rough and woody in appearance and brown in colour. The apical leaves are shed and the plant gradually dies. The carmine red spider mite (Tetranychus urticae) is the most prevalent pest of the plant in India.
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The main chemical constituents are alkaloids and steroidal lactones. These include tropine and cuscohygrine. The leaves contain the steroidal lactones, withanolides, notably withaferin A, which was the first to be isolated from the plant.
Tropine is a derivative of tropane containing a hydroxyl group at third carbon. It is also called 3-tropanol. Benzatropine and etybenzatropine are derivatives of tropine. It is also a building block of atropine, an anticholinergic drug prototypical of the muscarinic antagonist class. Cuscohygrine is a pyrrolidine alkaloid found in coca. It can also be extracted from plants of the family Solanaceae as well, including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Datura inoxia and Datura stramonium (jimson weed). Cuscohygrine usually comes with other, more potent alkaloids like atropine or cocaine.
Cuscohygrine (along with the related metabolite hygrine) was first isolated by Carl Liebermann in 1889 as an alkaloid accompanying cocaine in coca leaves (also known as Cusco-leaves). Cuscohygrine is an oil that can be distilled without decomposition only in vacuum. It is soluble in water. It also forms a crystalline trihydrate, which melts at 40–41 °C. There are also the alkaloids ashwagandhine, ashwaganidhine, and somniferine, all of which have been identified exclusively in the ashwagandha plant itself.
The plant's long, brown, tuberous roots have been used for centuries in traditional Indian medicine. In Yemen, where it is known as ubab, the dried leaves are ground to a powder from which a paste is made and used for burns and wounds. As of 2017, there is insufficient scientific evidence that ashwagandha has any biological effect.
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