Binomial Nomenclature: Curcuma longa
Family: Zingiberaceae, which also includes Ginger
Type of Plant: Rhizomatous, tropical herbaceous.
Native land: Woodlands of the Indian subcontinent
Parts used medicinally: Rhizome
Energetics: Bitter, astringent, pungent/heating
Actions: anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, stimulant, carminative, alterative, vulnerary, antibacterial
Turmeric has gained popularity in the last decade as an anti-inflammatory. It works extraordinarily well for some people. Iris has the beginnings of arthritis in her big toe, and whenever it starts hurting, she takes Turmeric tincture for a few days and the pain subsides, generally not returning for months.
Energetically, Turmeric is heating and drying. This explains it’s anti-inflammatory action: by contributing to our digestive fire, it allows us to “digest” free radicals and metabolic wastes that are floating around in our bloodstreams looking for trouble. If we process these out faster than we take them in, we can clear up unhelpful inflammation.
But it’s a plant, not a drug. It works very differently in different people’s bodies. While it is possible to extract curcumin, one of the “active” compounds and standardize this, we don’t recommend it. Plants are whole. Their various compounds work synergistically. A capsule of standardized curcumin is like an individually wrapped brownie from a box in the store — you know what you’re getting, but it’s not that great. Tincture or decoction of fresh turmeric is like a fresh, homemade brownie — sometimes it’ll be a little too gooey, sometimes a little too dry, but always exciting and real.
It’s ironic that one of the drawbacks often spoken of is low bioavailability of curcumin. essentially, scientists have found that, if they extract pure curcumin and give it to people, their bodies can’t easily metabolize and make use of it. So the scientists add an extract from Black Pepper, piperine, to increase the amount of curcumin the body can actively use.
But ingesting whole turmeric using a method that makes accessible the oil-soluable parts seems to work really well. I guess telling people to simmer dried turmeric in milk, saute it in oil, extract it into ghee or tincture it in alcohol would cut out the middle-men — the supplement/pharmacutical companies. Since they’re major contributors to most research laboratories, it’s considered a major faux pas to interrupt their income stream.
But remember how we said it’s heating in nature? Some people really don’t need any extra heat, because their constitutions are fiery enough. Mine sure is, which is why I take Turmeric only when I need it; it’s too hot for me to use regularly. So adding Black Pepper, which is also heating, makes it a better tonic for people who run cold and need to get their heaters going, but worse for those who run hot.
(Mis)adventures in Turmeric Propagation
As mentioned above, Turmeric is a native of tropical India. I was therefore extremely surprised when a friend told me that Heathcote, an intentional community in northern Maryland, was growing it. The micro-climate there is particularly cold, and the surrounding Mason-Dixon area is a far cry from tropical.
But I bought a few pounds of rhizomes from them in 2020 and was pleasantly surprised. They looked, tasted, smelled and felt absolutely vibrant and wonderful. And the tincture made from those roots was potent!
The following Spring, when we bought the field, we started thinking big about what we could grow. But generally, we were trying to be realistic, and focus first on hearty natives, weeds and other plants that would thrive on their own while we figured out how to live in the mountains.
Then, in July, on a brief trip to Baltimore, we discovered that handful of Turmeric rhizomes on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet, beginning to sprout! We got really excited and, in the spur of the moment, headed to the hardware store for some large-ish planters. The planters weren’t cheap, but we were, so instead of buying potting soil, we mixed some of the heavy, clay soil from the field with some peat moss and a scant few handfuls of rotted manure and planted the Turmeric in there.
The pots were set out in a partly sunny area and initially, growth was lush. Big, broad, glossy leaves waved at us as we passed, and I felt awed by our tropical guests.
Soon, though, the leaves started to yellow and then brown. We moved them into a sunnier spot, tried giving them more water, but they clearly weren’t happy. In October, a friend came to visit and mentioned that she was experimenting with growing Turmeric in pots in her house. When we told her our plants needed more love and warmth than they were getting, she generously agreed to take them home and tend to them for us.
Last week she called and told us the leaves had died back and the rhizomes were ready to dig. So we went to her peaceful plant sanctuary on a Sunday morning, excited to meet our little friends.
What we found was a little disappointing. 5 of the 8 rhizomes looked decidedly stunted, one was a decent size and shape but shriveled, and only two looked and smelled healthy and robust.
I’m pretty sure the main problem was the soil. It was so hard and compacted, it would have been a real challenge to push through and grow in there. But I can’t help wondering if it’s also hard to grow 8,000 miles from home. This is something I want to pay attention to as I get to understand the growth habits of plants; not just where can they grow, but how do they feel about it.
Fortunately for us, we got another wonderful bounty of fresh Turmeric from Heathcote this past Fall, so we have an abundance to share with you. Although I do want to deal with plants grown in their natural habitats, that’s always a tough balance, whether because of over-harvesting from the wild or, in the case of tropical-grown medicinals, unfair labor practices and difficulty finding ethical sources.
Turmeric is a special plant, and I’m honored to get to share space with it and learn from it. We will continue trying to grow it unless it tells us not to, so we’ll have deeper understandings to share as time goes on.