Turmeric in the Garden

DIY Spice? Garden Treasure?

What is this appealing plant that’s been popping up lately in California gardens?

Here’s a hint: Like its relative ginger (Zingiber officinale), this herbaceous perennial’s best-known attraction lies beneath the soil.

The deep orange-yellow rhizome (fleshy root) of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) is used widely in cooking in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, where the plant is native. Fresh or ground into a dry powder, turmeric adds an earthy, pungent, and bitter flavor to food, and it’s an essential ingredient in curry powder. In India it’s used to dye textiles a deep, rich yellow, and it’s used in traditional medicinal practices of many Asian cultures. In the West, it has recently become quite popular for its “superfood” anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

As our California community of growers from Southeast Asia has increased, the fresh rhizomes have been showing up at our markets, and with the newfound popular appeal, gardeners have begun experimenting with growing it. In cool climates, this has to be done indoors, but with the right warm and semi-moist location in your Bay Area yard, you may have some success.

Propagation is done by first sprouting the rhizome indoors. This can be done with the same root purchased at the market, provided it still has the “eyes” and has not been treated to prevent sprouting. So give it a go. Right now is a good time to start. It takes seven to 10 months from planting to harvest. ♦