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Turmeric

Curcuma longa
Turmeric

(Zingiberaceae)

Synonyms:

Curcuma (Sp. It. Fr.), acafrao da India (port.), geelwortel (Dutch), kurkum Arab. Manjano (East Africa (KiSwahili), haldi (Hindi) manjal (Tamil), kunyit (Indonesia) temu kunyit (Malaysian), iyu-chin (Chin.)

Description:

Turmeric belongs to the family of Zingiberacea, the ginger family. Anybody familiar with this plant family will readily recognize this affiliation even by simple superficial examination. Turmeric is an upright, relatively short and stout plant that rarely grows more than about 1 meter in height. Its leaves are elongated, dark green, and pointed, often curling slightly along the margins. Each leaf arises on an individual stalk directly from the fleshy rhizome at their base. The rhizome appears scaly due to the remaining rings of previous leaves. Its outer skin is brownish, but its flesh is deep orange-yellow inside. Rhizomes grow to about 5-8 cm x 1.5 - 2.5cm. When bruised they omit a spicy scent. The flower stalk will appear among the leaves, also directly rising from the rootstock. The yellow-reddish flowers are arranged spirally along the cylindrical spike, which may be partially protected by a leaf sheath. The flowers poke out from protective bracteoles, which form little 'pockets' along the flower spike. Turmeric propagates mostly vegetatively by means of rhizome segments.

Habitat:

Turmeric probably originated in India, deriving from the wild species C. aromatica (India, Sri Lanka, E. Himalayas), as this is the area where the greatest diversity of species is found. However, it is now common throughout Southeast Asia, China and southern Australia and in fact it has been naturalized in all wet tropical regions of the world. Today it is widely cultivated throughout the tropics, though most is still grown in India and never leaves that country.

Etymology:

The Genus Name is derived from the Arab word 'kurkum'. Most likely it found its way to the Occident with the caravans of Arab traders. Its Sanskrit name is 'haridra', which means 'yellow wood'.

History and Uses:

Turmeric has a long history of use, not just as a spice, but also as a healing agent and as a magical herb. As a spice it is probably most commonly recognized as one of the principle components of curry powder, to which it dons the characteristic yellow color. Curry powder is often mistakenly believed to be just one specific spice blend or even thought to derive from just one plant. The truth is that there are dozens of curry blends, which can vary tremendously and the best are those that are prepared fresh for each individual dish. These are indeed a far cry from the generic blend found on supermarket shelves. Here is one of many possible Curry powder combinations:

However, this basic mix is often varied with e.g. cloves, cumin or cardamom. In India, fish is sometimes wrapped and cooked in the fresh leaves to impart a turmeric flavor. As a spice turmeric gives a warm, slightly astringent note. It is considered carminative and stomachic, stimulating the digestive processes, easing indigestion and reducing flatulence.

When Europeans first discovered turmeric they often falsely identified it as saffron. However, while it serves perfectly as a dye for all sorts of substances, its properties and flavor do no not compare to those of saffron. In India turmeric is indeed widely used as a dye, not just for ritual foods offered to gods at the temples, but also for textiles (Buddhist robes are traditionally dyed with turmeric). Carbonate of soda helps to fix the dye, though it is not very permanent. It is also sometimes used cosmetically as make-up at weddings and other festive occasions. The food industry employs it as a colorant for cheeses, sausage and confectionary.

Turmeric also has certain magical associations, which are linked to fertility of humans and animals. Interestingly in this context, turmeric is medicinally used to regulate menstruation and reduce menstrual cramps. It is also sometimes worn as a magical charm for protection.

curcuma longaAfter harvesting, the root has to be cured for long-term storage so as to prevent it from shooting up new leaves. The traditional method of curing is to boil or steam the fresh rhizome in lime or sodium carbonated water. This cleans the root, stops all germination, gelatinizes the starch and removes the earthy scent. After boiling, the rhizomes are dried in the sun and subsequently ground to powder. Modern preparation techniques use 20g sodium bisulphite and 20g hydrochloric acid per 45kg of rhizomes, which are boiled in a kind of steam boiler. The result is a cleaner yellow tinted rhizome, which commercially is more attractive. For commercial purposes the roots are then dried artificially, rather than sun-dried, which improves their quality and reduces the risk of fungal growth or other contaminants.

Parts Used:

Rhizome

Harvesting Time:

7 - 9 months after planting (when the lower leaves turn yellow)

Active constituents:

Volatile oils, terpene, curcumen, starch, albumen, curcumin (colorant) potassium, vitamin C

The essential oil of turmeric and the colour component are very light-sensitive and deteriorate quickly when exposed to light. Thus it is essential to store the powder in dark jars. Once it has become pale the active constituents are rendered useless. Always pay attention to the packaging date when purchasing turmeric, as it seldom lasts more than 3 months. Turmeric is insoluble in water and ether, but soluble in alcohol. For medicinal purposes a tincture can be prepared.

Medicinal uses

Turmeric is an excellent liver herb as its signature indicates: It is used for jaundice and to stimulate gallbladder activity. It is thus helpful as a digestive aid for breaking down and digesting fatty foods. Clinical trials have shown it to successfully reduce cholesterol levels. Turmeric has germicidal properties and the traditional indication for use in the treatment of gastric ulcers may be due to its effectiveness in combating H. pylori, which is now found to be the major culprit as a cause of gastric ulcers.(Munzenmaier 1997 )

In Ayurvedic medicine turmeric would be considered a pitta substance since it works on the digestive principle, aiding the metabolic process and the absorption of nutrients. It stimulates the digestive fire.

Some traditional healers use it for the treatment of cough, or cooked with milk, to treat asthma.

Applied externally in combination with Neem leaves it is considered effective against ringworm and scabies. Traditionally it has also been employed as a treatment for eczema, leprosy and purulent inflammation of the eyes.

In Chinese medicine it is indicated for shoulder pain, menstrual cramping, colic and rheumatoid arthritis.

Recent studies have also found turmeric effective in inhibiting certain types of cancers. It has been administered both internally and applied externally to aid the healing of cancer lesions and scars. It is also effective in reducing the odor of cancer.

For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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