The Great Columbian Interchange brought turmeric to our shores, and it is now found in a number of Southwest dishes, including to give a lovely golden color to Christmas tamales. We just were gifted some of these tasty golden tamales – bringing this handy spice to mind. The Columbian Interchange is discussed more fully – here.
Turmeric – the Plant
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 lumpy underground storage stem which look somewhat like a ginger.
Uses of Turmeric
When I travel in Mexico I love to stop in the local mercados (markets) and see what is available. Turmeric often is, both as a powder and sometimes whole roots. I always ask how they use it and have learned much over the years.
As mentioned – turmeric can be added to tamale masa to give it a rich golden color. I have been told you can also add it to homemade cheese so it “…looks like the kind from the supermercado.”
In general turmeric is valued in many countries 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.
Grandma Soule used turmeric in her bread-and-butter pickles, which always included slices of onions. I remember my astonishment at age 4. I marveled at the brilliant yellow hue the white onions “magically” turned after the canning was done. “Turmeric caused it,” Grandma explained. “It is a spice that comes from plants.” Thus another step in my path to becoming a botanist was unknowingly taken.
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. In this century, the spice is currently popular as an anti-inflammatory and is said to help with high cholesterol and heart issues.
Tests show that turmeric is high in oxalates and it is thus advised to avoid if you suffer gout, kidney stones, or other oxalic acid induced health issues. We will post more about oxalate safety later.
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 “saffron-yellow” robes of Buddhist monks were often dyed with turmeric because it is a less expensive dye. Turmeric powder is also used in candies, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and in some commercial brands of mustard (which is why some mustard “stains” your clothes).
Word Nerd Shares – Some History of the Name
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 the spice as another name for “curcuma.” Curcuma was used as a name because the spice is highly similar to saffron. Saffron was called kurkum by the Arab traders who brought it to Europe from Asia.
In 1753, when names for many plants were systematized by the botanist Linnaeus, he used the name Curcuma for the genus of plants which turmeric belongs to. The spice comes from Curcuma domestica (sometimes listed as Curcuma longa in older herb books)
Grow Your Own Turmeric
Turmeric is a tropical plant that dies back to its rhizome in the coolness of our Southwest winters. (Yes, snow birds come here for our “warm” winters – but everything is relative.) Iris and ginger also grow from rhizomes. Iris leaves stay above ground in winter, but ginger and turmeric retreat 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 lower-most 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.
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