Curcuma longa is a tropical plant that is a member of the ginger family. It is more widely recognized by its common name, turmeric. Turmeric is a spice derived from the root of the plant. Circuma longa is raised both commercially and as an exotic ornamental. Curiously, Curcuma longa is now known as a domesticated plant and is not found wild in nature.
Curcuma longa has been cultivated for thousands of years in India and Southeast Asia. The plant was introduced to China and Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries. In recounting his travels, Marco Polo described turmeric. Curcuma longa was eventually introduced to Jamaica in the 18th century. Currently, commercial production is primarily focused in India and Southeast Asia. The plant is cultivated in home gardens in tropical areas throughout the world.
Curcuma longa is a perennial with large, lance-shaped, deeply veined leaves that project upward from stems that grow from the base of the plant. The leaf color is deep green and the surface is glossy and smooth. The flowers range from white to light yellow and form a tall spike. The rhizomes, specialized underground stems that are root-like in structure have a brown surface and bright orange or yellow interior flesh.
The plant is a perennial, although it is often cultivated commercially as an annual. The plant is relatively quick growing. It reaches a total height of 3 to 4 feet. The rhizome grows completely underground, putting out fingers from its sides. The flowers grow on a spike that sprouts from the rhizome, blooming first from the bottom of the spike to the top over time.
The plant requires warm, moist growing conditions to thrive. It grows best in tropical regions where rainfall reaches 40 inches per year. Temperatures for best growth should be between 85 and 95 degrees F. The plant prefers acidic, well draining soils and partial shade and is often grown under fruit trees. Curcuma longa is propagated by planting finger rhizomes that can be separated from a main rhizome.
Young shoots and rhizomes of Curcuma longa are spicy and can be eaten fresh. The spice turmeric is prepared from Curcuma longa tubers which extend from the rhizomes of the plant. They are first boiled or steamed, then dried and ground to a fine powder. The flavor is pungent, slightly bitter and reminiscent of orange and ginger. Turmeric is an essential ingredient in curry powder, which is used in vegetable and meat dishes in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. It is also used as a flavoring agent in mustards, relishes, and in place of saffron for color and flavor. Turmeric is also used medicinally. It contains curcumin, which is commonly used to treat digestive disorders, cardiovascular conditions, and as an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial agent.