turmeric plant
Turmeric plant in Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a member of the Zingiberaceae family which also includes ginger, cardamom, and galangal. Like ginger, the underground stems, or rhizomes, of turmeric have been used for thousands of years in Indian cooking and is a major component in curry recipes; it is also quite popular in other Asian, East African, and Caribbean dishes. Today, researchers are looking at its possible health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties.

The turmeric you find in the spice aisle in the grocery store is the plant’s rhizomes, dried and ground into a powder, but you can substitute fresh turmeric into most any recipe.

Fresh turmeric can be hard to find consistently in the grocery store. Luckily for Florida gardeners, growing it at home is easy.

With its tropical foliage and showy flowers, turmeric is a beautiful and useful addition to any garden. The turmeric plant grows to three feet and has oblong, dark green leaves that are about five inches wide. The flowers are yellow-white, growing on a spike-like stalk. It grows well in partial to full shade in soil that has been amended with organic matter. Turmeric prolifically produces rhizomes that are ready for harvest generally in late fall or early winter; you’ll know it’s ready when the plant goes dormant. A perennial, turmeric dies back during winter freezes but will return reliably in late spring.

While you can sometimes find turmeric at your local garden supply store, you may also have luck finding turmeric for planting in the produce aisle of your favorite grocery store. Choose a firm, fresh piece. To plant, cut the rhizome into pieces 1 to 1½ inches long, each containing at least one “eye” if possible. Do this a few days ahead of planting to allow the cut surfaces to dry, reducing chances of rotting. In your prepared bed, insert each piece and cover with about 1 inch of soil. Space them 15 inches in the row and 15 inches between the row. Early in the spring is the best time to plant.

Cooking With Turmeric

As a general rule about 1 inch of fresh turmeric is equivalent to 1 tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric, or 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric.

You may not even realize some of the times you’ve eaten turmeric; it is often used to add color to everyday foods like mustard. With a nutty taste and a slightly bitter edge, turmeric is a great balance for sweeter spices.

Fresh turmeric is a great addition to juices and smoothies, curries, and salads. However, like most spices, turmeric can be added to almost any dish: sautéed with vegetables, sprinkled into mashed potatoes (regular or sweet), or added to sauces and baked goods. Your options are only limited by your creativity.

a turmeric rhizome cut in half to show the dark orange color
A turmeric rhizome cut in half. Photo: Ulrich Prokop CC-BY-SA-3.0

Also known as Indian saffron, thanks to its yellow coloring, turmeric can also boost the color of your dishes. Added to cooking water, it gives rice and pasta a bright yellow color, while adding it to the cooking oil or butter of chicken and seafood will give the dish a warm orange hue. Be careful when cutting fresh turmeric though—the same properties that make it great for adding color to dishes will cause it also stain your hands, surfaces, and anything else it comes into contact with a glorious hue of yellow.

The roots are not the only useful part. Turmeric leaves can be used as a wrap the same way you would use cabbage, banana, or grape leaves.

Since growing turmeric will often provide you with a bountiful harvest, you may find yourself with more than you know what to do. Fortunately, turmeric keeps well when frozen. Simply wash, peel, and freeze the rhizomes. When you’re ready to use it you don’t even need to thaw it; simply grate what you need into your recipe. Another way to preserve your turmeric is to pickle it, although this would change how you would use it in recipes.

Lovely and tasty turmeric is a home-run in the garden! For more information on growing turmeric in your area, contact your county Extension office.

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