There’s an amazing little plant that is appearing “front and center” in the marketplace and it’s said to have miraculous healing properties. It is called ashitaba (Angelica keiskei) and it hails from the rocky shores of several Japanese islands. From the Apiaceae family which includes carrots, ashitaba has been used as food and medicine in Japan for hundreds of years, and it is now making its way west as people around the world learn of its healthful qualities. It is also called “tomorrow’s leaf” because a new bud appears in the morning after picking a leaf the night before.
If you are interested in ashitaba’s many benefits and watching your budget, you might consider growing it in your own garden. The plant can be difficult to find, even in nurseries. It’s a little tricky to get started from seed but once seedlings appear, the plant grows quickly. It will just need a fair amount of sunshine and good soil.
To start from seed (which is available on the internet), begin by soaking the ashitaba seeds overnight. Use fresh seeds for the best germination ratios. Make sure your soaking water is chlorine-free. In the morning, pour off the water and place the seeds in moist sand, peat or potting soil for 30 days. Keep in the refrigerator. Do not allow the seeds to freeze. At the end of 30 days, you will plant the still moist seeds close to the surface of your planting container or area. The seeds should be just barely covered. Press them down firmly.
At this point, it is critical to keep the seeds moist, but don’t over soak. If possible, it is recommended that this process be done in a greenhouse or with grow lights. Germination will begin after 15 days. Keep in mind that the seedlings are very slow-growing. In about 60 days, the seedlings are ready to be transplanted. Place them in 3-4-inch pots filled with a good quality potting mixture. Your pots should have drainage holes. When the plants are about the size of a fist, you can move them to your garden. Ashitaba also grows well in 1-gallon pots with drainage holes.
Ashitaba prefers full sun (they need about six hours of sun daily) or part shade. As an example, if you live in a hot climate like Arizona, give your plants some shade. If you live in cooler areas like Washington state or Maine, the plants generally can tolerate full sun. Always make sure your soil is rich in nutrients and well drained.
Water the seedlings every other daily. Just don’t let them dry out. If you are growing ashitaba outdoors in a pot, it is a good idea to protect it from direct sun so the leaves don’t wilt and turn yellow. It can’t be overstated that the soil must be moist. The same is true of wind: keep plants out of heavy and direct wind as this too will dry out the soil.
Flowers will appear biennially or every other year and they are monocarpic which means they flower and produce seeds only once before dying. The seeds are paired like two halves of a clam. The seeds are often joined together and doubles should be planted that way. Often, two seedlings will emerge closely together. They can be separated at the time of the transplant.
If you are choosing to plant in pots, one gallon size tubs are a good starting point. Graduate to three gallon containers as the plant gets bigger. The plants are slow growing in the beginning but will pick up speed as they mature. A mature ashitaba plant is around four feet wide and flowers up to five feet tall. A good growing temperature between is 75 to 85 degrees F.
You won’t see the ashitaba plants bloom until the spring or early summer of their second year. If you want your plants to be perennial rather than biennial, break off their flower umbels before the buds open. Make sure the plants in your yard are about two feet from each other and the same distance from other plants.
Your ashitaba plants will grow in a rosette shape (like a rose) and will have glossy dark evergreen leaves. When it is two years old, the rosette will be covered with a thick five foot tall upright spike that is full of flower clusters. This is called an “umbel” and stalks of nearly equal length will grow from a common center and form a flat surface. The flowers will be greenish-white color and fragrant.
When harvesting, keep in mind that mature leaves generally contain more of the active, health-giving yellow sap (chalcones) known for its healing properties. Small and tender shoots are not as potent.
It is a good idea to give your plants new compost monthly. If your plant produces side shoots, divide them and plant them to form new plants. You can also remove them to prevent the plant from flowering and going to seed.
A good way to harvest ashitaba is by removing a leaf and stem at the same time, ideally early in the morning, it is called the tomorrow leaf because if you do this there will be a new leaf sprouted in it’s place the next day. You can dry the leaves before storing them, as you would with other herbs. As a word of caution, ashitaba contains furocoumarins (a chemical compound found in some plants) and some people react with skin sensitivity and dermatitis. Check with your doctor if you plan on including ashitaba into your diet.
Enjoy your ashitaba plants that will provide you with an abundance of the antioxidants from chalcones. As one person said, “We eat the chalcone-laden stems daily and haven’t been sick once. The plant goes into your body, finds what ails you, and gently but firmly escorts it out of your body!” And that’s a great report for anyone who is interested in nature’s health-promoting bounty!