|If you've ever eaten East Indian food, you've probably tasted turmeric, the bright yellow, pungent spice. It's usually found in powdered form, but it can also be eaten freshly sliced from the root. Would you believe that you can grow it yourself from tubers that are found in most international markets? If that doesn't catch your attention, you can also grow these same tubers/rhizomes into lovely blooming gingers for your summer garden before you harvest the roots in fall for turmeric.
Botanically known as Curcuma longa, this plant can be found at many tropical nurseries advertised as a pink blooming ginger. A well known mail order nursery currently offers a two-foot Curcuma longa for $29.99, plus postage. Our local grocery market has fresh turmeric roots for $2.99 a pound. I paid less than a dollar for two handfuls of fresh rhizomes. That's a considerable amount of blooming ginger plants to enjoy for summer, dig up in fall, and eat fresh or cooked all winter! If you can find them, buy a few extras, knowing that not all may sprout.
Plant each rhizome about two or three inches deep into the soil and keep it well watered. It should begin to sprout in about a month. In warmer climes, you can plant it directly into the ground in late January. In a cooler clime, start it in a pot, then move it outdoors when the ground warms up. If you live in Canada, keep it indoors for the entire ten months, or stop reading now.
Turmeric is harvested from the yellow/orange rhizome of the Curcuma longa, approximately eight to ten months after planting it. Like any ginger, just give it water and fertilizer to flourish. It may surprise you and send up a pink bloom before leafing out. Gingers aren't bothered by many pests. To be able to harvest in the fall, you can plant it in January if you're in zone 7b or above. Otherwise, pot it up, keep it indoors until the weather warms, and then transplant it into the ground.
You won't be able to dig small pieces of the roots anytime you'd like throughout the summer, as with the Zingiber officinale ginger. So how will you know when this ginger is ready to harvest? The plant's foliage, which has grown into lush tropical green straps over the summer, begins to turn brown and die in late fall. That's the signal to dig up the rhizomes of fresh turmeric. Clean, dry, and store them in your refrigerator's vegetable bin. Wrapping the rhizomes in aluminum foil to keep them away from light should help them stay fresh for up to six months. You may want to save a few to replant for the next season. If you’re in a more temperate zone, you may leave a few in the ground. They should sprout when the weather warms a bit.
The process for drying the rhizomes and grinding them into powder is long and involved and not for the mere novice. After boiling the roots, they must be dried in the sun or a dehydrator and then ground into powdered form. It's far easier and cheaper just to buy a jar of turmeric powder. It's also much more satisfying to peel and thinly slice your own Curcuma roots and experiment with new recipes and healthy concoctions. You won't need as much fresh turmeric as you would ordinarily use with the powder. The fresh turmeric has a much stronger flavor. Know that turmeric will stain your fingers yellow/orange when you peel and slice it, as well as your cutting board and counter.You have been warned.
If you’re adventurous and want to try turmeric for the first time, mince a few slices into fresh corn, cooked in coconut milk. You may also add it to potato or egg salad for a bit of zing. In soups and stews, it can take the place of carrots. Marinated in a little lime juice and salt, sliced turmeric becomes pickles.
The reported medicinal powers of turmeric are many, some even proven. I won’t present that information as fact, as I truly don’t know for sure. It has been used as traditional Asian medicine for stomach problems and arthritis for hundreds of years. Clinical researchers, as well, have found turmeric to be useful as an anti-inflammatory. Followers of alternative medicine swear by the curative virtues of turmeric for a number of ailments. The rest of us just like the unique and peppery taste turmeric adds to our dishes, and the tropical blooms of gingers it lends to our gardens.