Turmeric is beautiful as well as tasty and healthy, and its so easy to grow at home

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Turmeric FlowerTurmeric FlowerTurmeric is a tropical perennial but can be grown in cold regions. Here's everything you need to know about using and growing it at home from a store-bought rhizome - in the garden, in pots, and even indoors.

An excerpt from my e-book "Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa" Click here to read more..

Turmeric, that gorgeous ochre coloured root, has become one of the trendiest spices to use today. It adds a unique flavour to dishes, not to mention the vibrant golden colour it imparts. A close relative of ginger, turmeric is the spice that gives curries their vivid golden hue and yellow mustard its bright colour. Its medicinal uses can be traced back thousands of years, and the people of India have long considered turmeric a healing herb. Current research is proving its many beneficial effects on the body.

Its warm peppery taste, with subtle hints of ginger, combined with its health benefits, is truly a match made in heaven. Turmeric makes healthy living delicious and easy, and recipes containing turmeric will also include other exciting and healthy spices. Learning the skill of combining them will open up a whole new world of flavours and aromas, which your family is sure to love!

Turmeric is widely cultivated throughout the tropics, and is thought to be a hybrid which evolved by selection and vegetative propagation between wild turmeric (Curcuma aromatica) which is native to India, Sri Lanka and the eastern Himalayas, and some other closely related species.

Turmeric is a beautiful 1m tall perennial with large, oblong, dark green, tropical looking leaves, and gorgeous white, yellow or pink flowers, which appear in summer, borne on a spike-like stalk 10 to 15cm long. The small brown seeds are not viable because the flowers are sterile, and the plant propagates itself vigorously by producing new rhizomes.

Turmeric Rhizome. Picture courtesy PixabayTurmeric Rhizome. Picture courtesy PixabayThe rhizome (underground stem) is thick and ringed with the bases of old leaves, looking like an ugly little cousin of ginger, but once cut open it reveals its vibrant, dark orange colour.

Turmeric was cultivated to be used as a dye and a valued condiment, as well as for its medicinal effects. The rhizome’s striking colour lent it a special aura in ancient India and it has long been considered an auspicious material in the subcontinent amongst the Aryan cultures (mostly northern) and the Dravidian cultures (mostly southern.) Turmeric’s common name in the north is “haldi” and derives from the Sanskrit “haridra,” and in the south it is called “manjal,”a word that is frequently used in ancient Tamil literature.

Turmeric is cited in Sanskrit medical treatises and has a long history of medicinal use in South Asia in Ayurvedic and Unani systems. Susruta’s Ayurvedic compendium, dating to 250 BC, recommends an ointment containing turmeric to relieve the effects of poisoned food. Turmeric was also recorded in China by 700 AD, East Africa by 800 AD, and West Africa by 1200. Indonesia, Indochina and nearby Asian countries, as well as some Pacific Islands, including Hawaii, also have traditional culinary and medicinal uses for turmeric going back to pre-history.

Unlike its close relative, ginger, turmeric never caught on in the West, either as a culinary or medicinal herb, and the old herbals of Europe make little mention of it. It was, however, used to make orange-yellow dyes. In the 13th century Marco Polo wrote of this spice, marvelling at a vegetable that exhibited qualities so similar to saffron. In fact, turmeric became known as “poor man’s saffron” and was used use as a substitute or knockoff of the much costlier saffron. Selling turmeric as saffron in medieval times carried a heavy penalty, and in Germany offenders were executed, burnt or buried alive, along with their illegitimate spices, under what was called “the safranschou code”.

In the 1870’s chemists discovered turmeric’s orange-yellow root powder turned reddish brown when exposed to alkaline chemicals. This discovery led to the development of turmeric paper which was used to test for alkalinity. European and American herbalists still had little interest in turmeric and this disregard continued in western herbalism until the late 20th Century when research was started initially in Germany by Rudolph Weiss, who discusses the potential use of turmeric for the digestive system in his book Herbal Medicine, first published in 1961.

Today turmeric is widely cultivated as a garden plant in tropical regions around the world, and is a valuable commercial crop, with India being the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of turmeric. Turmeric is also cultivated extensively in Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines.

Despite its status as one of the world’s healthiest spices, turmeric is probably most widely used commercially today as a food dye in mustard, margarine, chicken soup, or just about anything that calls for a golden colour.

It can also be used to dye Easter eggs, saris, or even skin. If you’ve ever accidentally stained a tablecloth or dish towel with turmeric powder or root, you are already acquainted with its efficacy!

Health Benefits:

Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines have utilized turmeric to clear infections and inflammations on the inside and outside of the body for thousands of years, but besides the holistic health community, western medical practitioners have only recently come on board in recognizing the health benefits of turmeric.

While more research is necessary, early studies have indicated that curcumin may help prevent or treat several types of cancer, including prostate, skin, and colon. Doctors at UCLA found that curcumin, the main component in turmeric, appeared to block an enzyme that promotes the growth of head and neck cancer. The University of Maryland’s Medical Centre also states that turmeric’s powerful antioxidant properties fight cancer-causing free radicals, reducing or preventing some of the damage they can cause. Curcumin also actually lowers cholesterol by working in tandem with the liver to remove harmful cholesterol from the body.

Dr. Randy J. Horwitz, the medical director of the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine, and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, wrote a paper for the American Academy of Pain Management in which he discussed the health benefits of turmeric, stating: “Turmeric is one of the most potent natural anti-inflammatories available.” He also examined the effect of turmeric on rats injected with rheumatoid arthritis, concluding that pre-treatment with turmeric completely inhibited the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the rats.

Natalie Kling, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist, says she first learned about the benefits of turmeric while getting her degree from the Natural Healing Institute of Neuropathy. “As an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiseptic, it’s a very powerful plant,” she says. Kling recommends it to clients for joint pain and says that when taken as a supplement, it helps quickly. She also advises adding turmeric to food whenever possible. “It’s inexpensive, mild in taste, and benefits every system in the body,” Kling says. “Adding this powerful plant to your diet is one of the best things you can do for long term health.”

Turmeric Powder. Picture courtesy PixabayTurmeric Powder. Picture courtesy PixabayIn the Kitchen:

Turmeric usually comes in a dried powder form, but the fresh root is also turning up in many grocery and vegetable shops today, you’ll usually find it right next to the ginger, or you may not find it at all. In that case, seek out fresh turmeric in an Asian market or speciality food store. Turmeric has been a staple in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking for thousands of years and is commonly used in Bangladeshi, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani cuisines.

The whole plant is edible but it is the roots which are boiled, dried, and ground up to produce turmeric powder. The leaves make a wrap for steamed fish, and are wonderful for decorating tables with a tropical flair. Even the flowers can be eaten as an exotically beautiful vegetable - like lettuce with a kick! No matter its intended use, turmeric is a truly unique herb and worthy of a place in any herb garden.

Although typically used in its dried, powdered form, turmeric is also used fresh, like ginger. The fresh turmeric root looks much like ginger root but is less fibrous and more chewable, crunchy and succulent, with a somewhat sweet and nutty flavour, mixed with a peppery kick. When it’s time to start cooking, simply cut off the required quantity, trim off the hard ends and peel with a vegetable peeler.

There are few places this bright yellow root can’t go - including your hands, kitchen towels and cutting boards, so ensure you work with gloves on. Use old chopping boards and do not work on surfaces which can stain. A little bleach will remove the stain from your kitchen towels, and putting your cutting boards in direct sunlight will help fade those stains.

Turmeric has numerous uses in East Asian recipes, such as a pickle which contains large chunks of soft, fresh turmeric. In India the roots are cooked and eaten as vegetable curry with roti or bread, and are also included in many vegetable and meat dishes. In Indonesia, the young shoots and rhizomes are eaten raw, and turmeric leaves are used for the Minang or Padang curry bases of Sumatra, such as “Rending” - a spicy meat dish which originated from the Minangkabau ethnic group, and is now commonly served across the country; as well as “Sate Padang” - a speciality satay from Padang, West Sumatra, made from beef cut into small cubes with a spicy sauce on top. In Thailand, fresh turmeric rhizomes are widely used in many dishes and particularly in southern Thai dishes like “Yellow Curry“, and “Turmeric Soup.”

In Vietnamese cuisine, turmeric powder is used to colour and enhance the flavours of certain dishes such as “Bánh Xèo” - a Vietnamese savoury fried pancake made of rice flour, water and turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. “Mi quang” is another favourite made with a rich chicken broth and rice noodles, freshened up with crunchy vegetables, and topped with everything from chicken to shrimp or snakehead fish. Powdered turmeric is also used in many Vietnamese stir-fries and soup dishes.

The staple Cambodian curry paste “Kroeung” which is used in many dishes, typically contains fresh turmeric. Many Persian dishes also use turmeric as a starter ingredient; and various Iranian khoresh (stew dishes) are started using onions caramelized in oil and turmeric, followed by other ingredients. The Moroccan spice mix called “Ras El Hanout” also typically includes turmeric. In South Africa, turmeric is used in curries and to give boiled white rice a beautiful golden colour.

When buying fresh turmeric, look for pieces that are firm and unblemished. Wipe clean with a paper towel, wrap in a clean paper towel and seal in a plastic bag. Turmeric will remain fresh for 3 to 4 weeks like this. Freezing retains the texture, colour and flavour. Slice, wrap in cling wrap and seal in a plastic container in the freezer for up to 2 months. The root can also be frozen whole, and sections grated off as required. Peeled and sliced roots, packed in a jar with vodka, will store in the refrigerator for at least a year; and if you store them in honey, they will last even longer.

To make turmeric powder, thoroughly scrub fresh rhizomes clean before boiling them whole for about 45 to 60 minutes. This helps brighten their colour and release some of the oils responsible for their deep aroma. Drain and cool completely before slicing and laying the roots on racks to dry out completely in a hot oven. Once cooled the roots can be ground into powder.

Turmeric PlantTurmeric PlantCultivation:

Turmeric is a tropical rhizome that looks just as great in the garden as it tastes on the table. Growing 70 to 90cm tall, its lush tropical leaves look attractive all summer long, making a welcome addition to perennial and flower borders. Nestled amongst the leaves, spikes of beautiful white, yellow or pink flowers shyly show themselves later in the season and are good for cutting. Unlike many vegetables and herbs, flowering turmeric will not affect the flavour of the roots, and the flowers are also edible.

Although turmeric thrives in tropical climates with high humidity, good summer rainfall, and temperatures between 20 and 30°C, because it goes totally dormant in winter, and grows well in containers, turmeric can still be grown successfully in colder climates. In fact, it will grow almost anywhere as long as the dormant rhizomes do not freeze in winter. In cold regions, move containers indoors, or to a sunny patio. In winter rainfall regions, move pots out of the rain, and lift rhizomes growing in garden beds. In warm, moist climates, turmeric can spread vigorously and may become invasive.

Growing this miracle drug couldn’t be easier, buy some turmeric rhizomes from a vegetable shop, selecting small, fresh roots with one or two buds. Larger roots with several buds can be cut into sections to plant. In tropical regions, turmeric can be planted at any time, but elsewhere, plant it in spring when temperatures are above 20°C. You can plant rhizomes directly into pots or garden beds, about 20 to 25cm apart, and about 5cm beneath the soil, making sure that the buds are facing upwards. Ensure that the soil is moist before planting and do not water again until the shoots appear 3 to 6 weeks later, depending on the temperature of the soil.

Select a position in the garden where the plant is sheltered from strong winds. In the tropics turmeric loves dappled shade, but it can also be grown in full sun if the soil remains constantly moist. In very hot and dry climates, semi-shade would be best, especially for potted specimens. Whether you are planting turmeric in garden beds or containers, ensure that the soil is rich but well drained, as water-logging can kill the plant. The ideal soil is slightly acid with a pH between 6.1 and 6.5.

The best shaped containers are those squat types with broad rims which allow the plant to spread. Potted specimens should not stand in a drip tray full of water; rather stand the pot on top of gravel so the water does not reach the drainage holes. This will also ensure extra humidity around the leaves of your plant. In hot and dry regions a daily mist spray of water on the leaves will also increase humidity around the plant.

During the growing season, water your plants regularly, never allowing them to dry out completely. Fertilise 4 to 5 times each season with a general purpose fertiliser for vegetables and fruits. Liquid fertilisers are great, especially for potted plants, but granular fertilisers can be used if care is taken to keep them away from the stems.

Regularly pull weeds out by hand as a fork or spade can damage the roots. After a stem has finished flowering, cut it to the ground to encourage new growth. By late autumn the leaves will begin to decline and turn yellow. Cut them back if desired, or let them die back naturally.

Turmeric can be harvested as required by carefully digging out the required amount from the side of the pot. It can also be harvested all at once, when the leaves start dying down. Simply dig up the entire plant including the roots, save what you want to use, and replant the rest, or store the rhizomes for next seasons planting.

If you don’t have a garden, like ginger, it is possible to grow turmeric indoors, but you should try to mimic its natural climate as much as possible. It requires a warm room where seasonal temperatures range between 16 to 32°C, thriving in sunlight filtered by curtains, or bright light. Too much direct sunlight may burn the leaves. Ginger and turmeric can be grown successfully under artificial grow lights, but be patient, it can take 6 to 10 months for potted turmeric to mature, but once established, little bits of the root can be removed as required. Select a shallow, wide pot with sufficient drainage holes. To increase humidity mist spray the foliage daily with tepid water and place your pot in a tray of water, but ensure it is raised on ‘pot feet’ or pebbles, so it stands above the water. Feeding regularly with a balanced liquid fertiliser will improve growth.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Outside of the regions where turmeric is grown commercially on a large scale, it is not affected by any serious pests, but watch out for caterpillars, aphids, and spider mites. These can be controlled by spraying suitable organic insecticides, or insecticidal soaps

Turmeric plants are prone to fungal diseases such as leaf blotch, a fungus which produces brownish yellow spots on both surfaces of the leaf, though the upper surface has more of them. Although the plants are not killed, leaves gradually wither and lead to a heavy reduction in yields. Leaf spot also causes brown spots on the leaves and may cause them to dry and wilt. Spraying with an organic copper based fungicide can help. Root rot occurs mainly in poorly drained soil.

If your plant is fed and watered correctly there should be few problems. The tips of the leaves will burn if the plant is in scorching midday sun, or if the soil becomes dry. Leaves becoming yellow or burnt at the edges could indicate over watering, or be a sign of insufficient nutrients.

Caution:

No contraindications have been seen when turmeric is used for culinary purposes, but avoid excessive use if you are pregnant, as turmeric has been associated with stimulating menstruation, and possibly, but rarely, inducing abortion. Avoid taking turmeric when taking drugs related to diabetes (that lower blood sugar.)