Columbia Star

Grow your own tropical spice plant

Stopping to smell the flowers

An ornamental turmeric flower grown and photographed by Ethnobotanist Gail Wagner

An ornamental turmeric flower grown and photographed by Ethnobotanist Gail Wagner

The tropical plants in your garden may include bougainvillea, caladium, canna, elephant ear, and mandevilla. But have you tried turmeric, Curcumin longa?

Turmeric is a tropical rhizomatous herbaceous perennial in the ginger family. The plant grows three feet tall with oblong, five-inch-wide green leaves, a canna-like foliage. Yellow, white, or pink flowers grow on a cone-like stalk. Turmeric has no major insect or disease problems. Slugs and snails can attack young leaves, and spider mites and mealy bugs appear when soil becomes too dry.

Winter hardy in USDA Zones 8-11, turmeric is easily grown in full sun to partial shade in organically rich consistently moist well-drained soils in ground, in containers like wine or whiskey barrels, and in SmartPot® fabric pots. Native to South Asia, plants thrive in hot summers with high humidity.

Turmeric rhizomes are ready for harvest in late fall or early winter when the plant goes dormant. Edible turmeric rhizomes are found in the produce sections of grocery stores like Whole Foods, health food stores, and Asian and Indian markets.



Plant rhizomes four to six inches deep in early spring making sure each piece has three to five crème colored eyes. Although perennial turmeric dies back during winter freezes, it returns in late spring.

The U.S. is a large importer of turmeric, although a small amount is commercially cultivated in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Georgia, and at Spade and Clover Garden on Johns Island, S.C. Home gardeners grow it as well. Southeastern ethnobotanist Gail Wagner grows edible and ornamental turmeric.

Turmeric has a long history of use in Asian, African, and Caribbean cuisines. The turmeric found in the spice rack of the grocery store is made of the dried and ground rhizomes. Since antiquity turmeric has been used as a condiment, vibrant yellow natural textile dye, perfume, and herbal medicine. Today turmeric is found in processed food products such as canned beverages, dairy products, baked products, ice cream, yellow cakes, yogurt, orange juice, biscuits, popcorn, sweets, cake icings, cereals, sauces, and gelatins.

Tropical turmeric foliage resembles canna foliage

Tropical turmeric foliage resembles canna foliage

Why not consider growing turmeric in your tropical tea garden? Turmeric tea, aka golden milk, combines one teaspoon of ground turmeric or one tablespoon of freshly grated turmeric in a pot with two cups of milk. Simmer for ten minutes and strain. Some add honey, cinnamon, or ginger.

Park Seed, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Burpee sold out of turmeric plants this year. Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh sells ornamental turmeric.

Turmeric rhizomes are underground stems.

Turmeric rhizomes are underground stems.

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