No plant’s been getting as much press lately as turmeric, and for good reason. Turmeric, a perennial and member of the ginger family, is packed with nutritional and medicinal benefits. The culinary spice is derived from the bright orange-yellow underground rhizome of the plant, generally harvested 8–10 months after planting or when leaves start to turn brown. Turmeric is native to southeast India and is best suited for a warm and wet climate. Turmeric can grow up to 4 feet tall, with dark green, glossy, oblong, pleated, tapering leaves of 2–3 feet in length. Flowers are yellow and grow in clusters of 3–5, but they will not produce seed. So, if you want to grow turmeric, you will instead be planting divisions of last season’s rhizome. Rhizomes can be used fresh, boiled to make a tea, or dried and ground into a powder.
Seed: Turmeric does not grow from seed.
Vegetative: Commonly propagated by dividing and planting the rhizome.
Rhizome Depth: 4–6″
Space Between Plants: 12″
Space Between Rows: 16″
Sprouting Soil Temperature: 60–80°F
Days for Sprouting: 14–30 days
Sow Indoors: In cooler climates, 6–8 weeks before average last frost date.
Sow Outdoors: After all danger of frost has passed. Unless you live in the tropics, where it can be planted anytime, plant in late spring.
Grows best in a tropical to subtropical climate with high humidity. Plants die back and go dormant each year, re-sprouting in the spring or summer. The rhizomes will not survive if frozen. In USDA Zones 7 and below, rhizomes should be dug up in the fall and stored inside for the winter. Keep the dormant rhizomes in a cool (but not freezing), dark area in a container filled with sawdust, well-rotted manure, or another sterile media. In Zone 8, you should be able to grow it outside, but provide a thick layer of mulch for protection of overwintering rhizomes.
Natural: Partial shade, particularly in the heat of the afternoon. Will survive in full sun if the soil is kept moist.
Artificial: Will grow indoors in a sunny window. Provide additional lighting if needed. At least a few hours of direct light is best. Because of their desire for heat, they will grow well under HID lamps.
Soil: Prefers a well-drained loamy to sandy soil with high amounts of organic matter but will also grow well in clay. A pH of between 6.1 and 7.8 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Store dry, dormant rhizomes in a sterile soilless media like, sand, perlite, or sawdust during cold winters.
Hydroponics: Thrives in hydroponic systems including a deep media-based ebb and flow system. Use coco coir as your media because of its moisture-retaining properties. Keep temperatures between 75 and 85°F for quickest growing results, and mound growing media around the base of the plant as it develops.
Water: Requires high levels of water in warm weather conditions and lower levels during colder weather. They are a very adaptable plant, tolerant of both flood and drought, although excessive dryness during the summer heat could cause leaves to droop or die, especially if shade is lacking. When starting new plants, soil should be kept moist, but take care not to overwater, or the roots could rot.
Nutrients: Requires low to moderate levels of nutrients. When planting, amend soil with compost or a balanced organic fertilizer. Feed twice a month during the growing season with a liquid fertilizer like compost tea or liquid seaweed.
Pruning: When the tops of the plants begin to die back, you can cut them back or choose to leave them in place to fall and cover the soil. If the plant sends up a flowering stem, cut it to the ground once it has flowered to promote new growth. If you are not regularly harvesting and lifting your turmeric rhizomes each year, it is best to divide the plants every 5 years to keep them growing vigorously and healthy. Just carefully dig up the rhizome and split it up before replanting the sections. Make sure each part has a few ‘eyes’ from which they will sprout new growth.
Mulching: Use mulch to keep weeds under control, conserve moisture, and protect underground rhizomes during cold winters.
Pest(s): Turmeric is rarely bothered by pests but watch for:
Disease(s): Not susceptible to diseases; however, if not divided for many years, turmeric may be susceptible to:
Rotation: Uproot and divide plants every 5 years, moving them to a new location to help prevent the development of diseases.
Companions: Grows well near taller trees which will provide some afternoon shade during the heat of the day. This will replicate its native habitat in the understory of a tropical forest. Also, it is said to repel ants, so a nearby turmeric plant will protect tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
Harvest: Dig up rhizomes 8–10 months after planting or once the leaves have begun to die back and turn brown. This should happen in late fall in most climates. Don’t try to take small pieces during the growing season, as this will cause problems for the plants.
Storage: Wash the dirt off the rhizomes, dry them, and keep them in the refrigerator. Covering with aluminum foil will keep out light and help to prevent sprouting. They should keep for as long as 6 months. In warmer climates where the ground doesn’t freeze, you can keep them in the ground and harvest as needed throughout the winter.
Fun Fact: In ancient India, turmeric was reputed to ward off evil and was used as part of sun worship rituals.
Other names: A plant of many names, worldwide it is also called Curcuma, Ukon, Goeratji, Kakoenji, Koenjet, Kondin, Kunir, Kunyit, Oendre, Rame, Renet, Temu Kuning, Temu Kunyit, and Tius.
Preserve: To make turmeric into the familiar powdered spice, wash all the dirt off rhizomes, then boil for 30–45 minutes. The rhizomes are then dried, using either the sun, an oven, or a dehydrator, and ground. Fresh roots can also be pickled or lacto-fermented. The juice of rhizomes can be frozen for later use. Try adding powdered turmeric to your honey for a delicious sweet and healthy additive.
Prepare: Use it fresh to make a tea or thinly sliced or minced in any recipe calling for turmeric powder. Wear gloves or expect yellow-stained fingers for days. Always peel the rhizomes before using. Fresh roots will have a much stronger flavor, so be sure to test as you go to avoid overwhelming your dish with the taste. Leaves can also be used for wrapping food that you are going to steam or grill. This spice is used in many Asian dishes due to its tendency to grow wild in the tropical forests there. It can be found in desserts as well as savory curries, soups, and stir fries. It is also used as a coloring agent, sometimes substituted for the much more expensive saffron, though obviously not imparting the same flavor.
Nutritional: Provides vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Also a good source of the antioxidant curcumin.
Medicinal: Turmeric, particularly the set of chemicals known as curcuminoids found in the plant, is being investigated for its anti-cancer, cholesterol lowering, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. It may help to promote liver health, soothe the stomach, treat arthritis and other inflammations, and can even be used topically for cleaning and treating minor wounds or skin irritations. Other investigations are researching turmeric as a treatment of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. Cultivated for over 5000 years in south Asia, it has been used for treating many illnesses and ailments by our ancestors and is becoming increasingly more popular in the West.
Warnings: Some sources recommend avoiding consumption during pregnancy, although levels found in food shouldn’t be a problem. Additionally, consult with a doctor before use if you are taking diabetes-related drugs.
Have a warm, tasty, relaxing, healthy drink before bedtime with this turmeric milk recipe.