Turmeric (curcuma longa)

An aromatic, yellow-flowering perennial with large, glossy leaves, turmeric is native to southern Asia. Its tuberous rhizome, which is golden yellow when cut open, is the source of both a pungent spice and a brightly colored dye traditionally used to color the robes of Buddhist monks in India and Asia. The herb is cultivated commercially in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries with tropical growing conditions.

Curcuma longa

Plant profile

Common Names: Common Turmeric, Indian Saffron, Turmeric, Yellow Ginger

Description: Stemless perennial, 16 to 36 inches tall; yellow to orange tubular blooms and large, lanceolate leaves; tuberous rhizome is a bright yellow when cut open

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Zingiberaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Rhizome

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Asia, widely grown in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries


Culinary use

Turmeric is a vital ingredient in East Indian, Persian, and Thai cooking. The spice—a powder made from the plant’s dried rhizome—gives many popular curry blends and curry dishes their distinctive yellow color and pungent flavor. The fresh rhizome can also be used much like fresh ginger-root, stir-fried with other ingredients or cut into pieces and pickled. Whole, fresh turmeric leaves can be wrapped around fish or vegetables before they are cooked to impart a unique flavor. Turmeric gives the condiment mustard its bright yellow color. It’s also sometimes used to color and flavor pickles, relishes, broths, and rice dishes.

Medicinal use

Turmeric is a wonderful example of an edible medicinal used to prevent or treat a broad range of health conditions. Long revered in traditional Asian healing practices, turmeric is considered an excellent anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant. Several compounds, including curcumin—the compound that gives turmeric its bright yellow color—account for this herb’s potent health benefits, and scientists are now investigating turmeric extensively. More than 1,000 scientific papers on turmeric have been published, seeking to understand how it works in the human body and its potential applications in contemporary medicine.

Caution: Turmeric should not be used medicinally by pregnant women or by those suffering from bile duct obstruction, gallstones, stomach ulcers, or stomach hyperacidity.

Other uses

Turmeric has long been used as a fabric dye when a rich golden hue is desired. You can experiment with this at home by dissolving the powdered spice in a pot of boiling water, then adding a piece of cloth to the cooled liquid. The longer the cloth steeps, the darker its color becomes. Because of its powerful antiseptic properties, turmeric is added to some cosmetics to improve and protect skin.

How to grow it

A tropical perennial, turmeric thrives in bright indirect light, temperatures above 60°F, and high humidity. If your climate is not suitable for turmeric, you can grow this herb indoors in a container. In spring, plant the rhizome (sold in the produce section of some specialty food markets) about ½ inch deep in well-drained, compost-enriched soil. Cover the pot with plastic, then place it in a warm location. When shoots emerge in about 3 weeks, remove the plastic and move the pot to a warm, bright location. Water and mist regularly.

When the leaves begin to die back and growth slows in fall, the plant is entering its dormant phase, which can last several months. During this period, reduce watering and provide brighter light, if possible. This is also the best time to harvest and divide the rhizomes. When new growth emerges in late winter, return the pot to its original location and resume watering.

A Golden Healer

For thousands of years, turmeric has been a premier plant of the Ayurvedic formulary. Its bright orange-yellow roots are used as food and medicine and in rituals. Applied to your skin, turmeric improves and tones your complexion, helps heal wounds, and improves acne. In India, a paste of turmeric root and ground lentils is traditionally used to wash the face and body, ridding the skin of bacteria, cleansing it, and curing skin conditions—all without the drying effects of soap. Skin treated with turmeric takes on a radiant beauty and pleasant golden glow.

As a food or herbal product, turmeric has extraordinary benefits, too. Recent medical research on both animals and humans has validated many of turmeric’s traditional uses for the prevention and treatment of conditions associated with inflammation. These include certain cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. If you have a chance, take an hour to survey the research literature on turmeric via your favorite search engine—you will be astonished at the overwhelming evidence of its benefits.