From the dinner table to the medicine cabinet, turmeric is an age-old spice that truly is worthwhile to have in your home.
Turmeric is an irreplaceable ingredient in curry powders. It can be used alone to add color and flavor to rice, potatoes and the batter used for making fritters. It is the safest food coloring there is.
Turmeric has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin is the main bioactive compound that has been widely investigated. But there may be a hundred other, yet-to-be discovered, substances that are as potent, if not more. Using the whole herb will be more effective than taking specific formulations.
Adding a piece of turmeric to your juicing recipe will help you reap the goodness of this liver tonic. Drinking a glass of warm milk with a pinch of turmeric first thing in the morning is a traditional detoxifying routine. It purifies the blood, clears acne and skin blemishes, increases bile production, and improves digestion.
People who have mouth ulcers and boils frequently benefit from internal as well as topical application of turmeric paste. Minor skin complaints like itching and rashes can be treated with the paste.
Indian women use a paste of turmeric mixed with milk cream as a sunscreen and skin-lightening lotion. But the pigments in turmeric stain cloth, plastic and even the skin that touches it. A non-staining compound THC is being investigated in Thailand for its skin-lightening property.
Turmeric is a tropical plant from the ginger family Zingiberaceae. Though known as Indian Saffron, Curcuma longae is not related to the crocus plant Crocus sativus that yields the real saffron. In India, and in many other Asian countries, turmeric has always been used indigenously in medicinal and cosmetic preparations, besides cooking.
Since turmeric does best in tropical areas, it can be grown outdoors only in places with the mildest of winters, that is, in USDA growing Zone 9 and above. The slightest touch of frost will kill the plant. However, it can be successfully cultivated indoors in a greenhouse or sunroom where the temperature is maintained above 65degrees Fahrenheit at all times.
- Light: Full sun in the morning, light shade in the afternoon.
- Water: Water well and regularly.
- Soil: Well-drained, loose soil with plenty of humus.
- Planting time: Late spring in the North and early fall in the Southern states.
- Growing period: 8-10 months.
Just like ginger, turmeric is also propagated vegetatively using sections of its underground stem or rhizome. They are mistakenly thought to be roots because they grow underground. But the scale leaves and buds betray them. Unlike ginger, turmeric rhizomes are not easy to get. If your local market or Indian store does not have it, ordering it online is the next best thing.
Preparing the material
If the rhizomes are in plastic packs, take them out and keep in a shady place to dry out for one or two days. It’ll decrease the chances of rotting due to fungus. We want to avoid using fungicides on them.
The rhizomes typically have many fingers with growing tips. The long ones can be separated from the main stem using a sharp knife or by simply breaking them off. The main stem also can be made into 1” sections carrying at least one or two buds. If you see some bumps under the scales, they are the buds from which shoots will spring up.
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Plant the sections in well-draining potting soil by burying them 2” deep. You may have to wait for several weeks before the rhizomes sprout. The first leaf will be rolled up tightly as it emerges, and then it slowly unfurls. The saplings can remain in the sprouting tray until it is time to transplant them.
In the tropics, rhizome sections are planted directly in the fields. In the Southern states like Florida, it is possible to do the same. But everywhere else, transplanting them into the beds or tubs after sprouting will give them a head start, and reduce the period they have to be outside.
Preparing the beds/pots:
Turmeric is cultivated traditionally in newly made, raised beds. The loose soil helps the rhizomes to send down the roots faster. It facilitates the spread of new rhizomes, too. Clayey soils with water logging can cause rot. Amend the soil with compost, manure or leaf mold.
Large pots or tubs are ideal for growing turmeric as they retain warmth better. There should be enough space for the plant to stretch out its roots, too. Rich, but well-draining, potting soil is a must.
Planting in the bed/pots:
Make holes in the bed 1-foot apart, sprinkle some dry manure or compost in them, and plant the saplings. Some people find it beneficial to cut off their heads as it may accelerate the growth of roots. Cover the holes with soil and press down firmly to fix the plants. Water the beds well. It is essential to keep the soil slightly damp, but not wet. New leaves will come out soon, indicating that they are well-established.
Planting in individual pots makes moving the plants easier. But they do well in large tubs, too, if planted with enough legroom.
Taking care of the turmeric plants:
Rich soil, amended well with manure or compost, may meet all the nutritional requirements of the turmeric plants, but they do respond well to regular top dressing. Weekly application of any good NPK mix is enough.
Sometimes, a flower stalk will sprout directly from the soil. It can be removed for using in flower arrangements. You can leave it alone, too. Beds may need occasional weeding. Pests and infections are rare; a good spray of water will remove occasional aphid infestations.
Harvesting the rhizomes
The plants will indicate when the rhizomes are ready to harvest. The foliage will turn yellow and eventually die off. Stop watering for two days before digging up the rhizomes. Shake off the excess soil and cut off the roots and the remains of the stems.
Wash the rhizomes thoroughly to remove all the dirt and then air-dry them for a day or two. If your crop is small, refrigerating the rhizomes in Ziploc bags will keep them long enough for you to use. Remember to keep aside a few good ones for the next crop.
A large crop can be processed for long-term storage. Boil water in a large vessel and tip in the rhizomes. Keep on low heat for 45 minutes or more until the stems are soft. Drain, and spread out to dry. Wearing gloves, scrape off most of the skin, and then slice them as thin as you can. Dry in the shade or in the food dehydrator at very low setting. When completely dry, these chips will be brittle. They can be stored in air tight containers for over a year. Powder the chips finely to get turmeric powder.