Alchemy and ayurveda

Chyawanprash, Vermont style

Cooking chyawanprash

Reducing the chyawanprash to a thick paste.

Last winter we decided to attempt a home-grown version of what is possibly the oldest recipe in the world – chyawanprash. “Prash” means jam, and Chyawan was an ancient Indian yogi, as the legend goes, from 10,000 years ago. Yes, four zeroes there, and don’t laugh. Increasing evidence is being found of large sophisticated urban areas that now lie underwater off India’s coasts. They may very well date back to the last Ice Age, before sea levels rose as the great glaciers melted.

But, I digress. Chyawan was getting on in years, and was given a young bride in marriage. A pair of herbalists concocted a rasayana, a blend of herbs in a fruit base to rejuvenate him so that he would be a suitable companion for a young woman.

Chyawanprash is a staple condiment in India, and the most popular ayurvedic product in the world. At first I was very skeptical about jam that cost around $15 a pound, but we purchased some, and were very impressed.

The purchased chyawanprash has a really bizarre texture, kind of like slightly sticky silly putty. It actually fights back when you insert a spoon and try to get it out of the jar. The flavor is unusual, but very pleasant in my opinion, rather like mincemeat pie with a whole lot of other stuff going on, including a lot of pepper.

black currants

Black currant was substituted for amla as the fruit base.

The primary ingredient in classical chyawanprash is amla (Indian gooseberry, Phyllanthus emblica), which is a very strong antioxidant, and has many other attributes beneficial to human health. I am sure there are folks who will say that without amla, chyawanprash is not chyawanprash. Whatever. Our goal was to develop an approximation – a rasayana in a fruit base with as many home-grown ingredients as possible, and amla is a tropical plant and simply does not grow here. However, we do have abundant black currants, which have much in common with amla – for instance, a high concentration of vitamin C and tannin. I picked and froze a gallon or so of black currants in July to wait for the other ingredients to be ready.

worden grapes

Worden grapes, hit by frost, and ready for jam. Yes, they live in a balsam tree. It was an accident.

The other fruit ingredient in the purchased chyawanprash (which we used as a rough guide) was grapes. By Equinox our Worden grapes were ripe enough for a batch. They are not seedless, but that’s a virtue, I think, for this application. I ran the grapes and frozen currants through the blender, skin, seeds and all until all particles were pulverized enough to be palatable in a paste. A lot of the nutritive value of these fruits is in the skin and seeds, so this way we keep all that in the mix. I have always preferred to not peel or strain fruits and vegetables unless it’s really necessary.


Ashwaganda can be grown here as an annual. It is perennial in milder climates.

The pulverized fruit was slowly simmered on the lowest heat possible, and the other ingredients prepared.

Chyawanprash typically has from 15 to 80 ingredients. Ours ended up with 20 ingredients. We found that we could easily grow or were already growing some of the major herbs involved: ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), tulsi (holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), tribulus (Tribulus terrestris). We make ghee (clarified butter) regularly from a neighbor’s raw milk, so that was easy, though we preferred go light on the ghee. We used purchased long pepper (Piper longum – this is a really important ingredient, though black pepper could be substituted), honey (we’ve not yet recovered from a bear devastating our bees), organic cane sugar, kudzu, cardamon, cinnamon, and clove.


Brahmi also can be grown as an annual here. It grows well in wet conditions. The photo was taken early in the season.


Tulsi or holy basil

Ashwaganda roots, tulsi leaves and flowers, brahmi leaves and stem tips, and green tribulus fruits were gathered fresh in early September, in anticipation of frost, which I feared might damage these herbs. The ashwaganda root was chopped up and tossed into the blender with the tulsi, brahmi and tribulus, with enough water to be able to blend them into a thick liquid. This was frozen in glass canning jars, then later (when the grapes were ready) added to the simmering fruit mixture.

long pepper

Long pepper (Piper longum)

The purchased spices ground up and added to the mix were long pepper (in great quantity), cardamon, cinnamon and clove. We made substitutions for some of the herbal ingredients. Instead of the root of Indian elecampane (Inula racemosa) we used Inula helenium which we have growing. Foraged wild ginger (Asarum Canadense) was substituted for regular ginger (Zingiber officinale).

wild ginger

Wild ginger

Elixir jam seems a perfect venue for other adaptogens and tonic plants and fungi, so to this batch we added the mushrooms turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus), and my own favorite, Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus). These three we have growing in abundance.

turkey tails

Turkey tail

In the future, we may add some others that are not yet as well established in our gardens (but show some promise), including fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), Schisandra chinensis, Rhodiola rosea, and Maral-root (Rhaponticum carthamoides).

The chaga was wrapped in a cloth, pounded with a hammer into small chunks, then soaked overnight with the turkey tails, chopped fresh eleutherococcus root and nigella sativa seed. Then I ran all these through the blender until smooth, and added the mix to the simmering pot.


Above, chaga, Inonotus obliquus
Below, eleutherococcus


If you’re familiar with the flavors of some of these ingredients, I know it sounds like it would taste like a train-wreck in your mouth. But somehow there’s a synergy there that works. It tastes great. We sweetened it just enough to take the very sour edge off the fruit. The consistency is like apple butter, and the cooking of it is similar – it is reduced very slowly on very low heat, then when sufficiently thick, poured into glass canning jars.

Chyawanprash can be eaten simply as is (you only need a teaspoon or two a day), diluted with water for a beverage (hot or cold), eaten with yogurt, spread on bread, whatever – essentially you can consume it any way that you would use any other jam or chutney. It’s definitely more fun than swallowing a lot of capsules of dried powdered herbs!

Growing fruit & nuts

Nut trees, good news/bad news

The good news is I found a really nice flush of oyster mushrooms. The bad news is they’re on a buartnut tree we planted nearly 30 years ago.

Oyster mushrooms on a nut tree

This tree was a seedling hybrid cross of a butternut with a heartnut (Juglans cinerea x J. ailantifolia), the idea being that the heartnut would contribute disease resistance and better nut characteristics – easier cracking and more abundance – to the butternut.

We have quite a few wild butternut trees all around us, but the nuts themselves are a rare find indeed. Same with hazel. The wild trees do bear nuts, I see them unripe on the trees. The thing is, there are all these professional nut gatherers (red squirrels) who have nothing better to do than snatch all the nuts the second they’re ripe and stash them away. A human doesn’t stand much of a chance at this wild harvest. And, if one should be so lucky as to find a couple of wild butternuts, well, let’s just say, they are a hard-won delicacy. The ratio of nut meat to shell (after you get the outer hull off) is about 1:4 in favor of the shell, and the shell does not open easily or cleanly. It’s hammer and pick work – a project for long winter nights around the wood stove.

So, the possibility of an improved butternut had great appeal to me. Inspired by reading Bill Mollison’s permaculture books in the 1970s, I made sure to plant and graft a few fruit and nut trees every year, no matter how tight money was. St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam NY was one of my major resources for planting material. It was founded in the 1920s by Fred Ashworth, who is probably the best known breeder of nut trees for cold climates. His work is being carried on by Bill Mackently, the present proprieter of St. Lawrence Nursery.

Whenever I think of people breeding nut trees (especially the old-fashioned way), I pause in a moment of deep respect for the fortitude involved in such an undertaking. In most cases it is a good ten years at least before one gets to literally harvest the fruit of one’s labor. In my mind, nut breeders are the epitome of patience.

The buartnut that out-grew its bark

And, not too far behind that are those of us who plant nut trees.

I planted a few of St. Lawrence’s Pierce selection of buartnut seedlings. Looking back, I wish I had been able to get grafted trees, but grafted nut trees hardy enough for us were just about impossible to find at that time. (Insert cheap advice – planting any seedling fruit or nut tree is a big gamble, and you don’t get too many chances to roll the dice again if you have a failure. If you’re planting nut trees, get grafted trees if at all possible.)

Of the first plantings, two seedlings tended to die back to the ground each year, whether from winter-kill or the disease that is afflicting the local wild butternuts, or something else, I don’t know. (I do know it wasn’t an issue of the quality of the nursery stock: when first planted they grew very well.)

One of these trees is still doing this annual die-back after 30 years, and out of curiousity, I’ve left it alone. However, one tree from the first planting of buartnuts grew like it was on steroids – a great example of hybrid vigor. The only problem was, it seemed to outgrow its own bark, causing splitting at intervals all the way around and up and down the trunk and branches. The splits were vectors for rot, and for many years the tree would lose branches and vigorously replace them. It had several good sized crops of nuts, borne at a relatively early age for nut trees. They were pretty similar to our butternuts, VERY hard work to crack with not much reward – and likely to vanish if you blink.

New buartnut, old buartnut

New buartnut, foreground; old buartnut background.

Here’s another Pierce buartnut seedling planted about 15 years or so after the first buartnut plantings. This one seems to be a much more well adjusted individual – good vigor, but not out of balance with growing hardy, solid wood and bark. It just started bearing 2 years ago, so it’s too early to evaluate it for the abundance of nuts. For nut quality, they’re a bit better than the nuts from the now dead tree, maybe 3:1 shell to meat.

nuts from the new tree

Nuts from the new tree.

Just about the same time the new tree had its first nuts, the old tree finally gave up the ghost. We haven’t gotten around to cutting it down, and now I’m glad about that.

A summer flush of oysters.

A summer flush of oyster mushrooms

The wet summer of 2009 brought out the first big flush of oyster mushrooms, and we had another this past November, which was a great treat. In the cold weather there was absolutely no insect damage. They were delicious.

Perhaps the buartnut tree on steroids made a lasting genetic contribution to our wild butternut population. I’ve been finding seedlings, scattered around our woods from squirrels’ forgotten underground caches, probably from the tree I planted, or maybe from the wild butternuts.

squirrel planted seedling

A butternut X seedling planted by squirrels amongst the tamaracks

Either way, there has likely been cross pollination here, and I’m hoping that some of the seedlings will have some resistance to the disease that is threatening to wipe out our wild butternuts. Another roll of the dice…


Where the wild things are

My take on permaculture is that before you bring in the heavy equipment and start carving out gardens, orchards and waterworks everywhere, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with what’s already on your land. Here are some photos from a couple of weeks ago of some favorite northern Vermont natives.



The ones on the left are ostrich ferns, and delicious raw or cooked. Notice the smooth dark brown papery stuff around the emerging fronds, and the dark green color. On the right is the toxic interrupted fern, which has fuzzy stuff both white and brown on the emerging fronds.

My favorite patch of wild leeks…

Wild leeks

Allium tricoccum. Actually I prefer them at a slightly earlier stage. They have a woody bulb at the base of the plant, which I pulled up for the photo. When foraging, I normally just pinch or cut them off a bit below ground level and leave the woody bulb in the ground, and use them like other green onions. The season for eating coincides with black fly season.

One of the precious few bits of plant lore handed down to me by my grandfather was that the Cowas (the native Americans in this area, my ancestors) would eat lots of these leeks, and rub their sweat all over their bodies and clothes to keep the black flies away. My grandfather also said I wasn’t allowed to do this.

Anyway, the city of Winooski and the Winooski River are named for allium tricoccum.

And the morel of this story is…

morel mushrooms

These and several more large morels appeared under one of our apple trees. I suppose we could have been good little ants and dried or canned some for winter, but they all got sauteed at once in a little bit of olive oil, with asparagus fresh from the garden, and some chopped winooskis thrown on top at the end of cooking. No regrets.