Herb Profile: Turmeric Plant | Curcuma Longa

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Photo By iStockphoto/MsLightBo
Turmeric has been in use for thousands of years, from purifying the earth to charming away jaundice. Today, the turmeric plant is still considered one of the most versatile medicinal herbs; it treats various skin conditions, relieves pain, soothes the stomach, and may even have anti-cancer effects.

Genus: Curcuma longa
• Also known as the golden spice or Indian saffron
• Zones 7 to 10

Many Indian brides anoint their skin with a sacred golden spice known as turmeric (Curcuma longa) the night before their wedding to capture a natural glow. This treasured spice is the herbaceous turmeric plant, well-known for its vibrant color and abundant healing powers.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a member of the ginger root, or Zingiberaceae, family, thrives in hot, moist climates such as China, South Africa and India, and grows 3 to 5 feet high. It’s a perennial plant with orange-red blossoms resembling lilies.

Although its flowers are stunning, its rhizome, or underground stem, is what attracts the most attention. When dried and ground, its rhizome yields a sharp yellow powder known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and astringent properties. It is also used in an array of Indian dishes, curry being the most popular. It is not as pungent as ginger but emits a sweet aromatic note.

Try These: Treat Arthritis With These Turmeric Products 

History and Lore

Turmeric has been in use for thousands of years. In its earliest reference, it was prescribed to charm away jaundice. It was used to worship the sun in ancient India—its golden color most likely the inspiration—and was also worn to ward off evil. Buddhist monks even dyed robes with it.

Historians believe that traders introduced turmeric to the western world during the medieval period, where it was known as “Indian saffron.” Today, it is still considered sacred and used in various rituals. Hawaiian Kahuna and traditional Vedic homes sprinkle turmeric mixed with seawater to purify the earth around them.

Health Benefits of Turmeric

Call turmeric a jack-of-all-trades—it’s one of the most versatile of all herbal healers. “It’s my favorite herb,” says K.P. Khalsa, the formulating herbalist for Yogi Tea. Khalsa describes it as a medium-strength herb with virtually no side effects. It is a popular stomach soother; an excellent skin food, treating myriad skin conditions, such as acne, dermatitis and psoriasis; tames oxidation; and relieves pain. In fact, as little as 1/4 teaspoon a day has measurable healing effects. Just be cautious that it doesn’t stain your hands yellow with its strong dyeing effects.

Many herbal experts consider turmeric to be the most useful herb in the world, according to Prashanti de Jager, author of Turmeric: The Ayurvedic Spice of Life (Pioneer Imprints, 2010). Although it is most commonly used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, modern research is fascinated with its healing properties. A search for turmeric on PubMed, the database of the National Institutes of Health, produces 1,755 studies.

Most recently, researchers have been analyzing its anti-cancer effects. Results are still early, but evidence suggests that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may help prevent, control or kill several types of cancer, including breast, colon, prostate and skin. One 2009 study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, showed that curcumin starts to kill esophageal cancer cells within only 24 hours of treatment. 

Curcumin may also prevent the onset of dementia. Studies suggest that people who eat curry two to three times a week have a lower risk. It may protect the brain against beta-amyloid, a protein that is toxic to brain cells. Clinical trials are still underway, so be on the lookout for more information.

To benefit from turmeric’s healing effects, incorporate this aromatic spice in your cooking; use 1 gram per day in capsule form; or try a standardized extract. Talk to your health-care provider before taking any herbs or supplements. 

Try This: Turmeric Milk

Treat arthritis with this traditional Ayurvedic drink known as Golden Milk. Mix 1⁄4 cup turmeric powder with 1⁄2 cup water in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Cook until a thick paste is formed, then store in the refrigerator. To make the drink, mix 1 cup milk with 1 teaspoon almond oil, 1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric paste and honey to taste. Stir on low heat and bring just to a boil. Blend to make a foamy beverage.

Gina DeBacker is assistant editor at The Herb Companion. No hands were stained in the making of this article. 

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