Grow Your Own Adaptogens

Provide support to your life and garden with these healthful herbs and roots.

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by Getty Images/GiorgioMagini

Plants that are used for human health can be grouped into many logical classifications, and the truth of the matter is that one herb can fall into multiple categories. Take chamomile for instance: It’s definitely a nervine, as it contains chemicals that are beneficial to the nervous system. Then again, we can easily classify chamomile as a carminative, because when steeped for more than a couple minutes, it releases bitter compounds that can mildly irritate the mucous membrane of the stomach, soothing digestion as it relieves cramping.

So, which is it? Herbalists are constantly devising ways to classify herbs, and this is a testament to the plant world’s continuous defiance of our ability to fully understand it. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that we’re still inventing new words for the benefits we receive. And the plants defined by one of those words are rapidly gaining popularity amongst modern herbalists and home gardeners: adaptogens.

Identify Your Adaptogens

In 1947, Soviet scientist N.V. Lazarev introduced the term adaptogen to describe herbs that create nonspecific reactions in the body in response to negative stimulation. At the time, he was describing the very first representative of Eleutherococcus senticosus.

In 2007, herbalist David Winston and researcher Steven Maimes defined “adaptogens” as a group of herbs that help the body to adapt to stress, support normal metabolic processes, and restore balance. In the majority of the population, they cause few to no side effects.

Today, we’ve progressed in our understanding of adaptogens, and I think we’ll continue adding herbs to the adaptogen group. These herbs are preferred by traditional healing modalities around the world because their medicinal use includes few, if any, side effects, while their efficacy increases — often with greater, broader benefits — the longer they’re used. And while adaptogens don’t target any one issue, they support an individual’s collective body systems in adapting to disease symptoms and disruptions to health, whether physiological, emotional, or environmental.

It should come as quite a relief that many plants categorized as “adaptogenic” can easily be grown in a temperate garden. With a bit of information on how each adaptogen grows in its native environment, you can readily add adaptogens to your garden plans for next year.

Seed Sources

(Eleutherococcus senticosus)

  • Family: Araliaceae (ginseng family)
  • Hardiness: Zones 3 to 7
  • Pests: Very few pests or diseases
  • Part Used: Root bark harvested in the fourth year summer or fall
  • Benefit: Eleuthero is an immune support often used alongside chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It’s been tested and studied for improving endurance, stamina, and muscle and tissue recovery after physical exertion.

Eleuthero is native to China and Russia, where it typically grows along the edges of forests in sunny spots or in areas with dappled shade. In my Ohio garden, this rather large shrub grows in full sun, but if you live in the South, you’ll want to keep this plant in a shadier location. We’ve had success in heavy, moist clay soil, and that’s not surprising, as the plant isn’t picky about soil so long as it doesn’t dry out.

When I first planted eleuthero, I bought three cuttings and planted them close together; I didn’t think they would grow well for me. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The cuttings should be planted 10 feet apart for good reason. Nearly 10 years later, those shrubs tower over me and fill an entire portion of my medicine wheel. I enjoy their palmate glossy leaves in spring, but I haven’t seen them grow any of the thorny stems for which the genus is known.

green leaves and black spiky berries of the eleuthero plant

In fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow color, and the blue-black berries contrast perfectly. The flowers are pollinated by a
wide variety of insects, including bees (though in my observation, not the honeybee), flies, and wasps. Each plant sports both male and female flowers.

Eleuthero has a bit of an identity crisis. Previously, this plant was called “Siberian ginseng,” but it lost that name after many found it too confusing, as eleuthero is unrelated to American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). In China, the plant continues to be known under the genus name Acanthopanax.

If you’d like to try growing your own eleuthero, you can do so by seed or by cuttings. (See “Seed Sources” below.) The seeds are slow to germinate, requiring six months of warm stratification followed by three months of cold stratification. Alternatively, you can simply place them in a cold frame in fall and allow nature to take its course. This will most likely take two winters to achieve, so keep them protected from rodents, and mark them well so you don’t accidentally plant something else over top of them.

Starting the plant by cuttings is a bit faster, or you may choose to layer a few stems. Greenwood cuttings can be taken in July or August, while hardwood cuttings can be taken in late winter.

(Glycyrrhiza uralensis or G. glabra)

  • Family: Fabaceae (legume, pea, and bean family)
  • Hardiness:G. uralensis Zones 5 to 11; G. glabra Zones 7 to 11
  • Pests: None
  • Part Used: Root harvested in the fourth year, spring or fall
  • Benefit: Licorice is considered the grand harmonizer in many cultures. It’s used often to support adrenal health, and is especially beloved for respiratory issues and sore throats.

Licorice is native to many countries around the world, including Greece, Turkey, India, and China. I’ve grown G. glabra in an unheated greenhouse here on the farm for years. It makes me wonder if I couldn’t set it out and keep it well-mulched in winter, but if you’re in a temperate zone, you’ll have better results with G. uralensis.

Licorice responds nicely to a well-drained and alkaline soil, though it will grow in acidic conditions too. It tends to send runners everywhere, so you’ll want to plan ahead regarding how you’ll keep it from taking over the world. Luckily, the roots have a distinctive yellow color, which makes it easier to distinguish them from other plants you’re harvesting.

close up of pointy green leaves and purple flowers of the licorice plant

If you’d like to start licorice, sow seeds in spring or divide rhizomes in spring or fall. When seeding, keep in mind that licorice has a hard seed coat that needs to be scarified — you can do this by rubbing it with a bit of sandpaper.

This herb loves calcium, so adding something with a high amount of calcium at the time of seeding can be helpful. I use comfrey tea. The seeds will sprout sporadically, so don’t be discouraged if after a few days you only see a few plants. Wait at least four weeks for all of them to sprout. If you’d like to use cuttings instead, start in spring or fall and separate the rhizomes, found just below the surface; find pieces with at least two buds each.

(Schisandra chinensis)

  • Family: Schisandraceae (schisandra or star anise family)
  • Hardiness: Zones 5 to 9
  • Pests: None
  • Part Used: Berries harvested in the fourth year fall
  • Benefit: Shisandra excels in treating nonspecific immune system issues. It’s also important for normalizing blood pressure.

To date, this vining plant has defied my efforts to get it started in my clay soil. I plan to build a raised bed area for my next attempt, so that I can plant it in well-drained, fertile soil.

Schisandra is native in China, Korea, northern Japan, and eastern Russia, where it climbs tall trees, so either plant it in an area where it can climb or provide a trellis. Shade is needed for best results. Those who get this beautiful plant growing will be rewarded with delicate white flowers with a light fragrance in spring, followed by bright-red berries in fall. The berry is said to have all five flavors identified in Chinese medicine. As a result, it’s also known as “the five-flavor fruit.”

ripe red berries hanging off of the schisandra plant

This species’ male and female flowers grow on separate plants, so you’ll need to have both for fruiting. This can be challenging to know until the plants are mature enough to flower,
so be sure to plant more than just two.

To propagate from seed, soak the seed overnight. Schisandra is another plant that requires cold stratification; you can either put it in cold storage for three months and then bring it out to grow in warmer weather, or sow seeds directly into nursery flats in a temperate climate and then leave them outside through winter. If you keep the soil watered occasionally, sprouting will occur in spring. If you don’t want to work with seeds, you can also propagate schisandra with stem cuttings, root suckers, or layering.

(Withania somnifera)

  • Family: Solanaceae (tomato family)
  • Hardiness: Zones 8 to 11
  • Pests: Aphids
  • Part Used: Root harvested in fall of the first, second, or third year
  • Benefits: Supportive of the thyroid and adrenal glands, ashwagandha is used to specifically target brain fog, sleep problems, chronic fatigue, and anxiety.

Ashwagandha is native to India and Africa where it’s known affectionately as “Indian ginseng” — though the common name literally translates to “horse smell” in reference to the scent of the roots. While this plant is entirely wrong for my climate, I’ve successfully grown it as an annual and still obtained a harvest. It’s not recommended as a container plant.

Ashwagandha powder and roots sitting on a scarred wood table

Sowing the bright-orange, glossy seeds can be done, but you’ll want to do it really early in the year if you want a first-year harvest. In Ohio, that means these seeds, go under the lights on our grow tables with the annual vegetable and flower seeds about 10 weeks before the last frost. Ashwagandha seeds need light to germinate, so sprinkle them on the soil’s surface and give them a dusting of sand for best results. Germination takes place in 2 to 4 weeks, so be patient and keep watering!

Once in the ground, ashwagandha is pretty drought-tolerant and doesn’t like wet feet. Plant it in raised beds, or mix sand into your soil. If you’re in the right zone to overwinter these plants, they’ll grow to be 3 to 4 feet tall with a spread to match. You can harvest the roots anytime over a three-year period, but you’ll get larger roots the longer you let them grow.

Quite a few adaptogens are tolerant of many climates, making them ideal for the home gardener. It was suggested by James Duke, a beloved global authority on herbal remedies, that the true power in adaptogens’ stress-reducing tissues comes from the fact that they, themselves, have had to adapt to a startling number of stressors in the environment. And in this day and age, I think you’ll find your garden incomplete without at least one of these important plants growing in the margins.

Dawn Combs is an ethnobotanist and herbalist. She is the formulator at Mockingbird Meadows and the chief soda jerk at her family’s storefront apothecary, Soda Pharm. She is the author of Sweet Remedies: Healing Herbal Honeys, Heal Local, and Conceiving Healthy Babies.

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