Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the November 19, 2017 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

About twenty handsome, broad-leafed CURCUMA LONGA plants in the garden were waist high and I wondered if they were ready for harvest. Curcuma longa, a member of the Ginger Family, the Zingiberaceae, is the plant producing rhizomes from which the pungent and yellow-dying spice called turmeric is made. Below, you can see some of my plants:

Turmeric Plants, CURCUMA LONGA

When I dug up the first plant, I could hardly believe my eyes, shown below:

Turmeric Plant, CURCUMA LONGA, freshly dug rhizomes

The orangish, toe-like things are rhizomes, and they're orangish because turmeric is the spice that gives curried dishes their golden color. Curry powder is a blend of turmeric, coriander, ginger and maybe other spices. The moment the rhizomes in the picture popped from the ground, the morning air was suffused with a strong spicy odor that instantly brought to mind my days in India when it was hard to find a meal that wasn't curried.

Some of the rhizomes were sprouting green stems. I broke them from the cluster and planted them as shown below:

Turmeric Plant, CURCUMA LONGA, planted for dry season

That plot was prepared with the long, intensely hot dry season coming up. The garden's soil has been compacted by cattle hooves for decades, and before that, depleted of organic matter by generations of Maya slash-and-burn, so first I pickaxed a trench in the brittle dirt, heaped up berms along the trench's sides, then pickaxed the trench deeper, wheelbarrowed in plenty of cow manure mixed with chopped, semi-rotted Guano-palm leaf (from rethatching a hut), and created loose, crumbly soil in which to plant the sprouting rhizomes. That's more or less how I prepared the rich, crumbly soil shown below:

rich, moist, crumbly garden soil

The plastic sheets covering the berms serve as mulch, to cut down on moisture loss during upcoming hot, dry months. The harvest shown in the pictures has come from plants that did most of their growing during the recent rainy season, so I'm uncertain how my luck will be with this new planting going into the dry season.

With this week's harvest, I've become a turmeric fan, wanting to know about it. I find that our Curcuma longa -- and that's a fine, old Linnaeus name -- is thought to have originated in southern Asia. None of my plants produced flowers, but when blossoms occur the resulting seeds are sterile, so plants reproduce only via their rhizomes. The species is thought to have arisen by selection and vegetative propagation of a hybrid between a wild turmeric plant and some closely related species.

In India, turmeric has been in use for at least 2500 years, and probably at first it served only as a dye, coming to be used as a condiment only later.

I read that the plant's rhizomes can be cured for use as a spice by boiling and steaming, or else by being boiled, dried, peeled and ground. However, I take a fresh, juicy piece of rhizome about as long as the last joint of my thumb, scrape it with a knife to produce something like orange, moist sawdust, and when that's added to my morning stew I can't imagine it being any better than it is. Below, you can see some of my rhizomes cleaned and undergoing enough drying to keep them from getting fungusy during storage:

Turmeric Plant, CURCUMA LONGA, freshly dug and cleaned rhizomes

On the Internet I see a discussion about whether raw turmeric roots are toxic. I'm not eating them raw, though. In fact, I read that a little cooking, as I do with my morning stews, actually makes the spice's important compounds more available to the body.

The list of traditional medicinal uses of turmeric is so long that one starts to doubt them. However, Western science has confirmed that turmeric shows anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, plus it shows potential for anti-ulcer, wound-healing, liver protective and anti-cancer uses. You might enjoy reviewing what Dr. Edward Group writes about it at the GlobalHealingCenter.Com website.

On that page, Dr. Group writes that "Turmeric contains many antioxidant compounds, of which curcumin is the most potent. In fact, studies have found that the antioxidant activities of this compound are ten times more effective than those of resveratrol, the much-hyped antioxidant in red wine." He also asserts that turmeric promotes cardiovascular health, helps maintain the liver, and resists harmful organisms. He calls it a "legitimate superfood."

Even without all the health claims, I'd be using the rhizomes in my morning stews if only because they color the stew so nicely, and add a good taste, along with a few coriander seeds and a chopped chili. Below, you can see my latest curried masterpiece:

curried soup