Article by: The Rainforest Garden
I'm not sure why turmeric isn't more popular, considering that growing your own, Thai food and DIY projects are all the rage. Curcuma longa is a tropical rhizome with an intriguing past that looks just as great in the garden as it tastes on the table. The whole plant is edible; the roots are boiled, dried and ground up to produce turmeric powder, the leaves make a wrap for steamed fish, and even the flowers can be eaten as an exotically beautiful vegetable, like lettuce with a kick. Oh, and did I mention that impersonating turmeric is a crime in India?
Why You Should Grow Turmeric
First of all, its large ribbed leaves create a lush and tropical look in any garden, and it's easily dug up and overwintered in northern climates. It has been the toughest and most reliable plant in my garden, with one rhizome increasing to hundreds more over the course of a few years with no effort on my part. The large green and white inflorescences nestled between the leaves are beautiful both as cut flowers or enjoyed in the garden. Besides it's appeal as a garden plant, Curcuma longais also incredibly useful in the home and kitchen.
This might be one of the world's healthiest foods; so healthy in fact that I wouldn't hesitate to call it a miracle drug. Not only does it contain a healthy serving of iron and manganese, It's proven itself as a cancer treatment, both preventing and destroying cancerous cells. Curcumin, turmeric's active ingredient, actually lowers cholesterol by working in tandem with the liver to remove harmful cholesterol from the body.
Turmeric's antiseptic and antibacterial properties make it useful for cleaning and treating wounds, and its anti-inflammatory properties allow it to treat arthritis, psoriasis, headaches and even blood clots! Think of it as Motrin, but with none of the harmful side effects. None of these health benefits are new to South Asians, who've been cultivating the plant and using it for over five thousand years for both treating ailments and treating themselves to some delicious curries.
Despite it's status as one of the world's healthiest foods, turmeric is probably most widely used as a dye. You see turmeric every day as a food dye in mustard, margarine, chicken soup or just about anywhere else a golden color is called for, but 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, you've already been acquainted with it's efficacy. I've even used some small rhizomes as a sort of sidewalk crayon or chalk!
The fact that turmeric is both yellow and a spice has given it the unfortunate nickname of "Indian Saffron" for it's use as a substitute or knockoff of the much costlier spice, saffron. This isn't to say that saffron is better than turmeric; it's just different! Turmeric has it's own unique flavor; warm, peppery and earthy, tasting nothing like saffron. Saffron is harvested from the stigmas of Crocus sativus and has been used for for thousand years (almost as long as turmeric) in Europe and central Asia, but is now mostly used for Spanish dishes like yellow rice.
Even so, the yellow rice mixes sold at the grocery store are made with lots of turmeric and barely any saffron at all. Even Mahatma 'Saffron Yellow Rice' lists turmeric as one of the top ingredients in the saffron flavoring, with real saffron followed only by the silicone dioxide used to prevent caking. It's amazing that passing off turmeric as saffron is don with such ease nowadays, especially considering that in the medieval days of Germany offenders were executed; burnt alive or buried along with their illegitimate spices under the safranschou code. An article in the Times of India looks like the coverage of a drug bust until you realize that the contraband is in fact rice husks and bad turmeric, not meth and coke.
How To Grow Turmeric
Growing this miracle drug couldn't be easier, and anyone can grow their own provided it receives enough moisture. Curcuma longa is naturally deciduous from fall until late spring, which makes digging and overwintering abundantly easy. You can buy it on Ebay by searching for Curcuma longa, but I bought mine as 'hidden ginger.' There are different kinds of hidden ginger, but only the rhizomes of Curcuma longa, Curcuma zedoaria and Curcuma aromatica should be grown as spices.
Moisture, Sun and Soil
Turmeric will handle anything you throw at it, returning from drought and sailing through floods. Mine grows in the dry shade under the house's eaves as well as constantly soggy soil. Garden literature will tell you that it requires moist and well drained soil, but it thrives in the clay and muck of my back yard like a weed. Turmeric can grow in full sun, but only if the soil remains constantly wet. Otherwise, provide mid-day shade. If the plant is stressed by drought or too much sun, the leaves will hang limp and develop burnt tips.
Gardeners in zones 7b through 11 can grow turmeric in the ground over winter through its dormancy period. Everyone else can just dig up the rhizomes in fall and store them in a cool place over winter. I've seen a few sources which erroneously state that turmeric can only be grown in the tropics, but anyone can grow it as long as the roots don't freeze.
Planting and Overwintering
Plant turmeric in spring once all danger of frost has passed, or in northern climates, start it in a container. The pleated leaves will eventually become plumes four feet tall in ideal conditions, and green and white cones of yellow flowers will emerge between the leaves in summer. After a stem has finished flowering, cut it to the ground to encourage new growth. By late fall the leaves will begin to decline and turn yellow. Cut them back if desired or let them die back naturally.
North of zone 7b, dig up the rhizomes in fall, rinse off excess soil with a hose and nozzle, snap off mushy and rotting pieces and let the rhizomes air dry before storing them dry peat or sawdust until spring. Check on them periodically for rot or pests.
I haven't found a universally accepted method for making turmeric powder, but the general consensus seems to be as follows:
1. Clean the rhizomes thoroughly
2. Boil rhizomes for 45 min.
3. Peel off the skins
4. Dry in shade for at least a week
5. Break up rhizomes with a hammer
6. Grind rhizomes using a mortar and pestle, or a food processor
Again, I haven't done this myself yet but I plan on trying it myself soon. If you happen to have a recipe, please share!