Alchemy and ayurveda

Three ayurvedic herbs for cold climates

For many years I tended to ignore the tropics as a source of plant material for our gardens, and cast my eyes towards cold places like northern Europe and Siberia with climates like ours. Plants that can acclimate and be naturalized here have long been my primary fascination; but, let’s face it, what would a gardener’s life be without melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and so on – all of which require (here, at least) the hand of a gardener to grow and to propagate.

The question becomes how much energy, space, time and treasure does any particular plant require, and is what you get out of it worth the input? I am quite willing to start peppers and tomatoes early on a kitchen window sill and hand-pollinate squashes. They’re definitely worth that much to me, but, for instance, I wouldn’t go so far as to buy plastic mulch, build hoop houses, etc, at least not at this point in time. This is all to say that I am quite delineated about how much space, time, energy and treasure I am willing to allocate for a given plant.

Tomatoes and peppers were originally perennials from the lower latitudes, but we have adapted them to grow as annuals and be productive nearly all over the globe. So, from that perspective, there are no doubt other valuable tropical plants that can acclimate to our gardens, even in northern Vermont, without too much fuss.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwaganda roots

A few years back I started hearing about gardeners in similarly cool climates growing herbs from India, particularly ashwaganda and tulsi, so we cautiously trialed some. We’ve had significant success with three of the primary ingredients for chyawanprash, which is now part of our daily diet, and consider these permanent members of our plant menagerie.

Ashwaganda is a perennial nightshade, a relative of peppers and tomatoes, and is grown pretty much on the same schedule – here it must be started early indoors and transplanted out after danger of frost is past. It is more frost tolerant, likes drier conditions and requires less fertility compared to tomatoes and peppers.

We use the root dried and in chyawanprash, and were thrilled last season when, out of the 18 plants we had growing, one set fruit, and viable seed. None of the others showed any sign of even flowering, so this was exciting and promising for it to adapt as an annual here, maybe even to naturalize (though I do not know how freeze tolerant the seeds are). Now we are growing out the seed from this very early individual, and expect to develop our own short season strain. On trial for this season we also have a strain from Africa purported to have high vigor, so maybe it will throw some early fruits, too.

A young tulsi plant

Tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is simply a lovely plant to have around, never mind that, like ashwaganda, it is an adaptogenic herb. In its native India, it is perennial and grows big enough for the stalks to be made into mala beads. It is ubiquitous at the entrances of homes and temples. Its fragrance is strong and uplifting.

A tulsi mala. (Tail of Arjuna the cat in the background.)

Although I have long grown numerous types of culinary basils, I never was able to get a good seed set from any of them, and I assumed that basils in general were all as cold sensitive as Ocimum basilicum, which is even more cold sensitive than melons. I had resigned to having to buy seed for basil, and I never tried tulsi, figuring it would be even less cold tolerant than its cousins.

A visitor gifted us with a plant one season, and I was pleasantly surprised. When the more familiar annual basils bloom and go to seed, which they are apt to do here prematurely from cold stress, it’s all over. The energy withdraws from the foliage, and the plants decline quickly, becoming an illustration of the term “gone to seed” used as a negative description. Tulsi sustains blooming and seed set, and continues to make new leaves and stalks. It dosn’t blacken at the slightest touch of frost either.

Tulsi actually sets seed well,
despite our short growing season.

Since we can get seed reliably from it, and grow it as an annual, it’s actually a sustainable plant here. I sow it about 4 weeks before the last frost, the same as the other basils, and set them out into warm soil. Because we don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame, window sill space for growing transplants is at a premium. I discovered that all the basils do very well sowing fairly thickly into 2 inch pots, and leaving a dozen or so seedlings in each pot. While it’s not as ideal as sowing into plugs or something like that, the seedlings do fine as long as they are transplanted fairly promptly when the time is right.


Brahmi in its winter quarters.

Our third import from India is brahmi, Bacopa monnieri. It is similar in some ways to another herb from India that I have had a great interest in, gotu kola (Centella asiatica). They both have been used medicinally to support healthy brain function, and both are swamp plants. I didn’t know of brahmi until recently, but had tried several times to grow gotu kola without success. I like using gotu kola enough that I was willing to pamper it as a houseplant, but it was impossible to keep the surrounding air humid enough for it, even in a terrarium.

Brahmi, on the other hand, is perfectly happy as long as its feet are wet. It summers in a pot set into a wet garden bed, where it spreads rampantly. In the fall, a piece can be put in a 4 inch pot to winter over on a kitchen window sill, as long as the pot is kept wet. Just that much is quite adequate for two people to nibble off daily sprigs throughout the winter, and have a good sized plant to set out in the warm weather. Brahmi is perennial in India. We have gotten some flowering but I’m not sure about seed set – the seed capsules are tiny, and while some capsules formed, I could not tell if they any had viable seed, and I haven’t yet noticed any volunteers. That’s OK, though – it roots so easily there’s no need to bother with seed.

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!