Jacqueline Soule, AKA Gardening With Soule, today. If you have a garden (as opposed to a landscape) you will always have some task to perform. Pots of plants become overgrown, the roots crowded, and the plants need to be divided. I was recently performing this chore, and one of the plants needing attention in this warm month was turmeric.
Turmeric (Curcuma domestica) is a member of the Ginger Family (Zingiberaceae), related to grasses, orchids, and bananas. The economically important portion of the plant is the rhizome, a large, lumpy underground storage stem (which is structurally different than a root).
Turmeric is a tropical plant that dies back to its rhizome in the coolness of our Sonoran winters. (Yes, snow birds come here for our “warm” winters – but everything is relative.) Iris and ginger also grow from rhizomes, with iris staying above ground in winter, but ginger also retreating underground.
Plant turmeric rhizomes horizontally and cover them with a sparse layer of soil. In the Southwest, turmeric grows best in full sun to afternoon shade. Provide ample water for this lush-leafed plant. Plant in well-drained rich to slightly sandy soil. Turmeric will do well in containers, which is how I grow them, with the lowermost inch of pot submerged in the water garden.
If you have an entirely desert landscape, turmeric won’t look right in your landscape. But – if you are like most of us in the Southwest – you have an oasis zone in your xeriscape, and thus turmeric will fit right in. Turmeric will also grow well in a water garden. So yes – you can grow them in the desert.
Turmeric in Medicine
Turmeric is popular in India and the Far East to treat stomach complaints. A paste is applied to help cure bruises, and to accelerate the formation of scabs caused by chicken pox and (in the past) smallpox. The fumes of the burning rhizomes are used to relieve colds and lung congestion. In the 1800’s turmeric was used in the United States as a stimulant and stomach tonic. Turmeric is now popular as an anti-inflammatory and to help with high cholesterol and heart issues.
Turmeric in History
In the days of alchemy, a paste made from turmeric and water was applied to paper. This paper would then change color from a saffron yellow to a reddish brown if exposed to alkaline conditions. The Latin term ‘terra merita’ (deserving or deserved earth) became shortened to termerit, and later changed into turmeric. Note that yes, there is an “r” in the word – tur-mer-ic.
In the 1500’s, books called Herbals, which were used as medical guides, mention turmeric as another name for “curcuma.” Curcuma was used as a name because the spice is highly similar to saffron, called kurkum by the Arab traders who brought it to Europe from Asia.
In 1753, when names for many plants were systematized by the Swede Linnaeus, he used the name Curcuma for the genus of plants which turmeric belongs to. The spice turmeric comes from Curcuma domestica (sometimes listed as Curcuma longa in older herb books)
Turmeric for Dye
One major non-spice use of turmeric is as a coloring agent. It colors both cotton and wool without need of a mordant (fixing agent). The yellow robes of Buddhist monks were often dyed with turmeric. Turmeric powder is also used in candies, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and in some commercial brands of mustard (which is why some mustard “stains” your clothes).
Turmeric in Cooking
Turmeric is valued worldwide for the subtle flavor and brilliant color in gives to curry sauces. It can be used alone to color rice and rice pudding. In Yugoslavia, a festival bread is flavored and colored with turmeric.
My grandmother Soule used turmeric in her bread-and-butter pickles, which always included slices of onions. I remember my age 6 astonishment at the brilliant yellow hue the white onions “magically” turned after the canning was done. “Turmeric caused it,” Grandma explained. “It’s a spice that comes from plants.” Thus another step in my path to becoming a botanist was unknowingly taken.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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