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Trending Medicinal Plants: Turmeric and Ginger

Why do turmeric and ginger make us think of the "hurr durr" meme? Or maybe "derp," or "ermahgerd?" Maybe because our founder is a freaking Millennial and he repeats this stuff all the time in our family-run seed business. Add "curcumin" to the conversation and it's all over — the Boomers are going home. 

While James will always sound like a doofus when he recites these words in a single sentence, you'll come off as cleverly resourceful once you learn more about their role in herbal medicine. Especially after all the pharmacies have been ransacked when the zombie apocalypse hits and your favorite curry food cart's been commandeered by the National Guard. 

What's the buzz about turmeric?

Cultivated as a medicinal, spiritual, and culinary plant for more than four millennia, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a core spice in Ayurvedic healing and a trending topic in modern herbalism. It's grown for its knobby rhizome which, when cooked, adds a pleasant, earthy taste to Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. It tempers vegetables' "grassiness," allowing their distinct core flavors to shine through. Turmeric's bright orange rhizomes give curry its color, and earns the plant the title, "the golden spice." 

Curcumin: Turmeric's healing power

Curcumin isn't an herb, nor is it some top-secret formula hoarded by Big Pharma — unless Mother Nature wears a lab coat and hosts all-expenses-paid marketing junkets to tropical Asia. Curcumin is a natural compound found in turmeric rhizomes. 

According to those who actually wear lab coats, curcumin may perform as well as many over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and it shows promise in easing metabolic disorders and lowering "bad" cholesterol while boosting the "good" stuff. Legit scientists and traditional practitioners alike believe curcumin may also help treat skin disorders and possibly even slow the development of cancerous cells. According to Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects by Sahdeo Prasad and Bharat B. Aggarwal, and a feature article in Times of India, turmeric's a natural remedy for a wide range of ailments:

  • Poor digestion
  • Gas
  • Intestinal worms
  • Menstrual problems
  • Gallstones
  • Depression

Turmeric's antioxidant properties show promise as a preventative for Alzheimer's, and it's often used in traditional medicine to detox the liver. When used topically, it can treat wounds and promote youthful skin. 

The Joint United Nations and World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have cleared curcumin as safe for human consumption. Side effects are uncommon but include nausea, diarrhea, and aversion to international coalitions with extremely long names. 

Benefits with friends, or friends with benefits?

While turmeric is, relative to other plants, "high" in curcumin, the compound only makes up three to five percent of the plant's mass by weight. This means you'll have to grow a whole bunch of turmeric and learn how to distill concentrated essential oils to benefit from its medicinal properties. Plus, you'll need a different sort of companion plant in your garden — and maybe a good salmon run nearby. As UMass Medical School's Center for Applied Nutrition lays it out for us, curcumin can't do the job without help: Piperine in black pepper and fat from fish, nuts, and avocado help us metabolize curcumin before our organs can flush it away. 

Are you thinking, "so what's the point of growing turmeric if it's so hard to take advantage of its benefits?" Well, there are two. First, it's a phenomenal culinary spice. Second, the plant is worth growing for its ornamental appeal alone. 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale

Most of us in Western society are familiar with ginger. Ginger "root" (rhizomes) is available in most North American supermarkets. Ginger and turmeric rhizomes are very similar, but the former has a more robust shape and pale salmon-color in contrast to turmeric's goldenrod yellow. Ginger and turmeric, while being close cousins, have very different flavors but their medicinal uses are very similar. 

What is gingerol? 

Zingiber officinale's active compound is 6-gingerol, a natural chemical similar to those found in hot chili (capsaicin) and black pepper (piperine). Gingerol gives the spice its bite, but it doesn't replace piperine as an aid to making turmeric bioavailable. Still, ginger and its close cousin turmeric often complement one another in the kitchen and in the apothecary cabinet. 

Ginger has its own reputation as a healing plant, used to treat the following: 

  • Nausea
  • Joint, muscle, and skin inflammation
  • Cold symptoms
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Flatulence and bloat
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Chronic and acute cognitive impairment
  • Stress
  • Flesh wounds and infections
  • Irregular bowel function

Ginger's also reputed to help the body better absorb nutrients from other food and herb sources, and it sure as heck cleanses the palate between sushi servings. (Especially helpful after sea urchin. Ew.)

Can you grow turmeric and ginger at home? 

Both these species are tropical plants, but they'll thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 and above. You can get away with growing them in cooler climates with the help of mulch, or by bringing potted plants indoors. They naturally grow in the filtered light of forest understories, and they love humidity. They rarely grow larger than 30" tall, so they'll fit in nicely with your collection of indoor herbs and houseplants. 

Growing ginger and turmeric for their flowers requires patience, particularly if they're grown outside their preferred climate. Rhizomes take a couple of years to fully mature and send up flowering stalks, so you might want to choose ornamental varieties for their looks, leaving their rhizomes alone for the duration, while growing Curcuma longa and Zingiber officinale for medicinal and culinary use.

Choose your rhizomes carefully

This is as good a time as any to explain that rhizomes, like bulbs, are technically part of the plant's stem rather than its root system. Still, you'll find turmeric and ginger "root" at supermarkets, but they might have been sprayed or soaked with preservatives or growth inhibitors to keep them from decaying or sprouting during shipping. Also, you need to be sure you get rhizomes with the tiny nodules referred to as "eyes," which are sometimes removed or knocked off during packing and transit. We recommend you hit up a gardener who's ready to divide their own established ginger or turmeric plants or find a garden supplier with "seed" rhizomes. (Not us; we only sell seed seeds here at Seed Needs.)

Use well-draining, compost-rich soil

Tropical plants like ginger and turmeric grow in deep, decaying jungle litter. Standing water is deadly to all rhizomatous plants, but so is drought. Humus-rich soil with sand or Perlite will keep it loose, fluffy, and lush, and either drip irrigation or a watering reminder programmed into your fancy Apple Watch (or whatever) will prevent it from drying out. 

Divide and plant rhizome segments

Some suppliers suggest soaking entire rhizomes for 24 hours before getting them ready to plant. This helps plump them up if they seem a bit dehydrated, but longer soaking doesn't provide any benefits. Cut up your seed rhizomes so each section has at least one "eye," which should face up. The stems will grow from here, and the roots will spread out horizontally. When selecting containers, wide is better than deep. A six-inch wide pot is enough for a single rhizome chunk; eight inches is even better. Cover each segment with two inches of soil, and place the pot on a heated germination mat to trigger root and shoot growth. A new stem should appear within about three weeks. 

Ginger and turmeric should get several hours of indirect light each day. When treated as houseplants, you'll want to be more generous with light, but if you plant them outdoors — and especially if you keep them in containers outside — be sure they only get direct sunlight in the morning or filtered sunlight throughout the day.  

Notes on harvesting ginger and turmeric

As with other bulbs and rhizomatous plants, the leaves die back after the flowers are spent or when temperatures begin to drop. Don't remove the leaves until all but a third have turned brown, or a few weeks before the first fall frost — whichever comes first. Then, gently dig up rhizomes, rinse off excess soil, gently pat them to dry, and hang them in a mesh onion bag in a cool, dry, dark place with good air circulation until you're ready to divide them up for replanting.

Rhizomes kept for kitchen use are best kept refrigerated or frozen in an airtight container. Ground turmeric will stay fresh for three or four years in your spice cabinet and whole, fresh turmeric rhizomes, if kept in the fridge in an airtight container, will last up to 14 days. Pop it in the freezer and it will hold out for a couple of months. 

Turmeric and ginger recipes to get you inspired

cooking with turmeric

  • DIY Curry Powder from the Minimalist Baker: Everyone needs fresh curry powder in their spice cabinet, and it's not as complicated as you think! 
  • Homemade Fresh Ginger Ale from The Spruce Eats: We finally figured out why airline attendants are so pushy with their ginger ale. It helps ease airsickness and has a calming effect. 
  • How to Make Turmeric Oil from The Indian Spot: While this isn't a highly-concentrated essential oil, it's the traditional method for bottling turmeric's qualities for cosmetic, culinary, and medicinal use. 
  • Turmeric-Ginger Tonic with Chia Seeds: Epicurious' recipe even includes black peppercorns. 
  • The Most Basic Dal Recipe from Today: Attention, Midwestern suburbanites! The Today Show's online magazine simplifies a staple Indian dish with suggestions for hard-to-find traditional ingredients. 
  • Quick Pickled Ginger from NYT Cooking: Do you have one of those silly little rolling kits for sushi? Well, here's another shortcut, but one that produces better results. (Especially if you were planning on using canned tuna for those rolls — something that's only acceptable when the s* really has hit the fan.) 

If you do decide to process your own turmeric for use as an herbal remedy, check out this article by ConsumerLab for tips on dosages and optimizing its effects. You can get similar information on ginger from Drugs.com

Seed Needs is growing right along with you! 

We love to cover all types of popular plant-based medicines on our popular gardening blog, even if they're not typically grown from seed. If they are, you'll likely find them in our online catalog. Or, you can contact us to recommend a variety or find out if we have plans to offer them in the future. We're always happy to get feedback from our customers, especially as our family-run business continues to expand. Stick around and explore our website's brand-new look! 

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