By Dr. Mercola
A bright orange spice that's been a favorite in Thai and East Indian cooking for thousands of years, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is aptly named for the Persian word "saffron," a hue much like a pumpkin or the flesh of a sweet potato, but the similarity ends there. The vibrant, yellow-orange color is synonymous with the robes worn by many Buddhist priests.
Turmeric is part of the ginger family, which is why both exude a pleasant little zing on your tongue, but the flavor is different; the former is described as both pungent (read: bitter) and peppery. It's not meant to be a flavor on its own but as a seasoning to complement other foods. It's famous in curry dishes, mustard (hence the color), soups, the current obsessions known as turmeric latte or golden milk and more.
But here's where the benefits keep going. Besides creating a unique and signature flavor, turmeric's aforementioned health benefits make turmeric a natural, healing substance that more people than ever want to have at the ready. That's because it's not just powerful, it's also safe, which can't be said for most prescriptions.
Because natural turmeric can't be patented, making a mega-profit off its benefits isn't possible, and since it's not a "drug," it can't bear the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) seal of approval. The root is used to make prescription drugs, however.1 Nonetheless, the healing aspects are readily available in the root itself. Daily Health Post notes that turmeric "may be the world's most important herb" because it contains more than 600 potential preventative and therapeutic functions, and further, that it's:
"A medicinal spice so timelessly interwoven with the origins of human culture and metabolism, so thoroughly supported by modern scientific inquiry, as to be unparalleled in its proven value to human health and well-being.
Indeed, turmeric turns the entire drug-based medical model on its head. Instead of causing far more side effects than therapeutic ones, as is the case for most patented pharmaceutical medications, turmeric possesses hundreds of potential side benefits, having been empirically demonstrated to positively modulate over 160 different physiological pathways in the mammalian body."2
That said, while this spice is commonly thought of as growing best in a hot, tropical climate, you can actually grow turmeric at home, similar to ginger. Sure, you can buy it in many large supermarkets, but it's usually quite expensive, is somewhat limited depending on the time of year and to find it in organic form is rare.
Growing Turmeric: Nipping It in the Bud
I experimented with growing turmeric and planted a pound last year. This year I have a virtual turmeric forest that even flowered. Now I can have fresh turmeric at my fingertips year round. Below is a photo of the turmeric forest I have grown.
Turmeric, the featured video notes, is a plant grown for its roots. It isn't propagated by seeds; how it's grown, both indoors and out, starts with a firm, healthy root, which you can usually find at a health food store or supermarket. Root cuttings have little "growing buds," which look like nodules or even "fingers" extending outward, generally in the same direction. When planted, rule one is that the buds are facing upward, not downward, in the soil. Here's the drill:
- Break or cut a large turmeric rhizome into a small piece (or more, if desired) that has two or three buds.
- Fill 14- to 18-inch-wide pots (for each 6- to 8-inch root) that are at least 12 inches deep and provide good drainage with rich, moist, organic soil to 1 or 2 inches below the rim, depending on the rhizome's size.
- Place the rhizome so that the buds are facing upward, not downward, below the surface of the soil by two to 4 inches.
- Whether planting outdoors or in pots inside, these plants thrive in heat — 86 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit works well — as cooler temperatures will produce much slower growth. However, part shade is fine.
- Water the plantings and keep the soil moist, especially in dry, hot climates; less frequently in cooler temperatures. Watering every other day is a good rule of thumb, but don't let them sit in soggy soil. You can also mist the soil with a spray bottle, which tropical plants appreciate.
Areas that don't have the high temperatures that turmeric thrives in must produce it other ways. That's where grow lights and heat mats come in handy, either full time in early spring or late fall, or during the night when available light isn't around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
It can take eight or 10 months for turmeric to mature enough to be edible, so determine your planting time, method and location accordingly, and be patient! While you can also eat the leaves and roots, the star of the show is the underground root. While the spiky flowers are beautiful, lush and tropic-like, their presence doesn't adversely affect the roots, as is the case in many herbs and edible plants.
Growing Hints and Helps for Turmeric, Inside and Out
Once the plants reach 2 inches in height, transplant them if necessary so there's at least 16 inches between them. Compost tea is a good thing to implement to ensure optimal growth. Outside, only garden zones 8 or 9 (expert sources vary) and above will sustain the growth of a turmeric plant, although summers in colder zones will also work if you dig up the plant and move it inside or take the whole pot inside before it starts getting too cool. Turmeric plants don't do as well when it dips below about 65 degrees F.
You should also know that turmeric outdoors will go dormant in winter, but in the warmest climates (7b garden zones and above, generally) it can be left in the ground to sprout new, greenish-white and sometimes pinkish-white flowers the following spring. The roots will survive as long as they don't freeze. Mulching them with a couple inches of organic matter will also help protect them from an unexpected frost.
Rodale's Organic Life3 explains that your turmeric is likely ready for harvest when the plant above ground begins turning dry and brown. Gently remove the roots — if in pots, tip the whole thing to get to the root — and shake off loose soil. Cut the stems off about an inch above the rhizome root mass and wash them well.
Grow This4 notes that it's usually best to harvest turmeric rhizomes all at the same time, but when you dig them up, you can save one or two for future plantings so that in every sense, the potential health of each root is propagated.
Once You Harvest Your Turmeric
Once you begin handling turmeric (which should be done so gently, Heirloom Gardener5 advises), especially peeling them or cutting them for propagation, be aware that exposure to the flesh will turn you bright orange, so wear gloves. Fresh turmeric can be used in similar ways to ginger. You can cut the peeled roots into coins or grate it to add to stir-fries or drinks. Drying turmeric is another option, but you should know that the process will inhibit the strength of its pungency, as are essential oils, The Kitchn says.6
Store fresh turmeric rhizomes in a baggie or other airtight container for up to a week, or freeze them. To dry turmeric for later use, you can boil your harvested turmeric root for 45 minutes, pat it dry with a paper towel, peel it and allow it to dry for about a week in an area that's protected from dust but with air circulation — not plastic. You can grind the roots into a fine yellow powder using a coffee grinder, food processor or even pestle and mortar to use for multiple applications, both culinary and medicinal.
Turmeric powder adds so much zest to cooking that you may wonder how you ever lived without it. You can also throw a teaspoon into your smoothies with other healthy ingredients, such as coconut oil and fruits like banana or mango.
You can sprinkle powdered turmeric root on roasted vegetables such as cauliflower, zucchini and sweet potatoes, on meats such as pastured chicken or grass fed roasts or in lattes; in fact, the options are only limited by your imagination. A good rule is that 1 inch of fresh turmeric is equal to 1 tablespoon of fresh grated turmeric or 1 teaspoon of dried powder.
What's so Great About Turmeric?
The single-most exceptional health-beneficial and disease-preventive compound packed in turmeric is curcumin. One study notes several of the most important properties of this rugged rhizome, and the plant chemicals involved, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, immunostimulant, antiseptic, analgesic and anticarcinogenic:
"Components of turmeric are named curcuminoids, which include mainly curcumin (diferuloyl methane), demethoxycurcumin, and bisdemethoxycurcumin … Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is a polyphenol derived from Curcuma longa plant, commonly known as turmeric. The active constituents of turmeric are the flavonoid curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and various volatile oils including tumerone, atlantone, and zingiberone."7
Curcumin is also hepatoprotective, aka liver protective, notably against the toxins tetrachloride (CCl4), galactosamine, acetaminophen (paracetamol) and Aspergillus aflatoxin, mainly due to its antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines from forming, and evidence shows it may help treat gallstones.
Further, the phytochemicals in curcumin prevent platelet aggregation, or the clumping together of platelets, which improves circulation.8 WebMD lists an abundant amount of maladies, conditions, illnesses and disorders that Ayurvedic and other natural approaches have been employing curcumin for over centuries. Incredibly, this is just a sampling of the ways the potent phytochemical curcumin has been used successfully.
Urinary bladder inflammation
Curcumin's Potency Against Cancer, Alzheimer's
Studies on the astonishing potency of curcumin against cancer are numerous. In vitro, for instance, it was found to resist oxidative damage in aortic endothelial cells.9 In addition:
"Curcumin is antimutagenic as it potentially helps to prevent new cancers that are caused by chemotherapy or radiation therapy used to treat existing cancers. It effectively inhibits metastasis (uncontrolled spread) of melanoma (skin cancer) cells and may be especially useful in deactivating the carcinogens in cigarette smoke and chewing tobacco."10
Animal studies have indicated three stages in which curcumin helps inhibit cancer: tumor promotion,11 angiogenesis12 and tumor growth,13 particularly in colon and prostate cancers. Daily Health Post lists serious disorders and diseases curcumin may be useful for treating or preventing, including:14
- Killing cancer cells, including stem cells or roots, and those that are drug resistant
- Protecting against damage caused by radiation
- Reducing and/or preventing inflammation
- Protecting against heavy metal toxicity
- Not just preventing but reversing Alzheimer's and other types of dementia
Keep in mind that curcumin may interact with a variety of prescription and nonprescription drugs, including some diabetic medications, aspirin and other painkillers, by causing nausea or upset stomach. Overall, however, studies and reviews have tested turmeric's effectiveness against disease extensively. The study concludes, as we should, that the "efficacy, pharmacologic safety, and cost effectiveness of curcuminoids prompt us to 'get back to our roots.'" Just one example observes:
"Because it can modulate the expression of [several important molecular] targets, curcumin is now being used to treat cancer, arthritis, diabetes, Crohn's disease, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, psoriasis, and other pathologies. Interestingly, 6-gingerol, a natural analog of curcumin derived from the root of ginger … exhibits a biologic activity profile similar to that of curcumin."15