Fruits of this plant were found in a floral collar of the innermost coffin of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. (Mabberley 2008 : 911).
Withania somnifera is a small shrub to 2 m high and to 1 m across. Almost the whole plant is covered with short, fine, silver-grey, branched hairs. The stems are brownish and prostrate to erect, sometimes leafless below. The leaves are alternate (opposite on flowering shoots), simple, margins entire to slightly wavy, broadly ovate, obovate or oblong, 30–80 mm long and 20–50 mm broad, narrowed into the 5–20 mm long petioles, almost hairless and green above, densely hairy below.
The 1–7 inconspicuous bisexual flowers appear at the leaf nodes on 2–5 mm long stalks. The 5-lobed calyx is ± 5 mm long; in fruit it is ± 20 mm long, spherical or urn-shaped, membranous and 5–10-ribbed. The corolla is 5-lobed, narrowly campanulate, 5–8 mm long and light yellow to yellow-green. The 5 stamens are yellow-orange and somewhat exserted.
The fruit is a hairless spherical berry, 5–8 mm across, orange-red to red when ripe and enclosed by the enlarged calyx. The numerous seeds are very pale brown, 2.5 mm across, ± kidney-shaped and compressed with a rough, netted surface.
In southern Africa the flowering time is mostly from October to June, while the fruiting time is mostly from October to July.
Withania somnifera can be recognized by the red fruit covered by the brownish, papery, inflated calyx. Collectors have described it as a bad-smelling bush with particularly strong-smelling roots and have also commented on the leaves that have a strong smell of green tomatoes.
Withania somnifera is not threatened and its status is described as 'Least Concern' by Raimondo et al. 2009.
Distribution and habitat
The genus Withania is restricted to the Old World; it is rather closely related to the genus Physalis, the gooseberries. Hepper recognized 10 species, but later on Hunziker added nine more Asian species from other genera in the Solanaceae. W. somnifera is the most common and widespread species in the genus and occurs naturally, mainly in the drier regions, from the Mediterranean through tropical Africa to South Africa and from the Canary and Cape Verde Islands to the Middle East and Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and southern China. It is cultivated in gardens in the warmer parts of Europe and has become a naturalized weed in South Australia and New South Wales. It is grown in India and elsewhere as a medicinal crop plant, mainly for its fleshy roots.
Withania somnifera is widespread but not common in all provinces of South Africa and also Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho. It is, however, absent from the western halves of the Northern and Western Cape Provinces. It grows in a large number of vegetation types in dry areas to areas with a fairly high rainfall such as coastal vegetation, grassland (also on termite mounds), karoo, savanna, scrubland, woodland, often in margins of forests and thickets, also near water, like on river banks. It is found in light shade as well as full sun, often among rocks where the roots are kept cool. Unfortunately it can become a weed in disturbed areas, cultivated lands and overgrazed pasture. In southern Africa this plant grows at altitudes of 15 –2 300 m.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Linnaeus first described this plant as Physalis somnifera in 1753. In Flora of Australia (Purdie et al. 1982:184) it is stated that the genus Withania is named after Henry Witham (sic.), an English palaeobotanist of the early 19th century. However, the spelling of the name Withania is conserved under the rules of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The specific name somnifera means sleep-bearing.
The fruit is relished by birds.
Uses and cultural aspects
Withania somnifera contains more than 80 chemical compounds, mainly alkaloids and steroids (withanolides). Numerous studies have been published on the activities of these compounds, mostly obtained from the leaves and roots. These studies have demonstrated antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, cytotoxic, anti-tumour and cholesterol-lowering activities. This is an important plant in the traditional medicine of Africa and Asia. Ashwagandha is perhaps the best known of all the plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has narcotic, sedative and diuretic properties and counteracts the symptoms of stress. It is widely referred to as ‘Indian ginseng', and like the real ginseng from Chinese medicine (Panax ginseng), it is used as a general tonic and considered to be effective against a large number of ailments. Different chemotypes of this plant are known. Wink & and Van Wyk 2008:238 say that W. somnifera has a mind-altering cell toxin which is only slightly hazardous.
In traditional medicine in southern Africa the leaves are used to heal open as well as septic, inflamed wounds, abscesses, inflammation, haemorrhoids, rheumatism and syphilis; a paste of leaves is applied or ointments are made with fat or oil. For internal use the dried roots are taken in the form of a decoction, infusion or tincture. The notes on the labels of several specimens in the National Herbarium in Pretoria give interesting information on the traditional uses of Withania somnifera. B. Maguire 2215, Namibia, 1953: ‘the fruits and flowers are used by Bushmen for ‘charm' purposes in lion hunting.'W. Giess 9733, Namibia, 1967: 'Bushmen burn the roots in a fire to keep lions away.' A.P. Goossens 929, Free State, 1931: 'The smear derived by roasting the ripe fruit in fat is said to be an excellent cure for sore mammae of cows.' G.C. Theron 481, Eastern Cape, 1948: 'Leaves used locally on open sores; the lower side of the leaf 'draws' and the upper side ‘heals' '. W.J. Hanekom 1933, Richmond, Eastern Cape, 1972: 'An infusion of the roots of the koorshout is drunk by patients with a fever.'
Growing Withania somnifera
The winter cherry is propagated by seed and grows easily. It is not cultivated in southern Africa and is not commercially available. It is also not discussed in South African horticultural books. However, it could probably be grown as a curiosity.
References and further reading
- Gonçalves, A.E. 2005. Solanaceae. Flora Zambesiaca 8, 4: 55–58.
- Henderson, M. & Anderson, J.G. 1966. Common Weeds in South Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 37.
- Hepper, F.N. 1991. Old World Withania (Solanaceae): a taxonomic review and key to the species. In Hawkes, Lester, Nee & Estrada (eds): Solanaceae III: Taxonomy, Chemistry, Evolution. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Linnean Society of London.
- Hunziker, A.T. 2001. Genera Solanacearum: the genera of Solanaceae illustrated, arranged according to a new system. A.R.G. Gantner Verlag K.-G., Ruggell.
- Mabberley, D.J. 2008. Mabberley's Plant-Book: a portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses. Cambridge University Press.
- Purdie, R.W., Symon, D.E. & Haegi, L. 1982. Solanaceae. Flora of Australia 29: 184.
- Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. & Manyama, P.A. (eds) 2009. Red list of South African Plants 2009. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Shaw, J.M.H. 2000. Withania. In Cullen et al. (eds): European Garden Flora VI: 241.
- Van Wyk, B.-E., Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. 1997. Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Van Wyk, B.-E., & Wink, M. 2004. Medicinal Plants of the World. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. 2nd edition. Livingstone, London.
- Wink, M. & Van Wyk, B.-E. 2008. Mind-altering and Poisonous Plants of the World. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
National Herbarium, Pretoria