Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a native of India, flowering in the arcade of Bonnefont Cloister. Turmeric and other tender exotics in the collection are grown in pots.
The plant collection at The Cloisters includes a number of exotic species that would not have been grown in medieval European gardens, but whose dried roots, seeds, bark, or other parts were imported for use in food and medicine. Far from their native habitats, these plants are not hardy in our climate and must be grown in pots and removed to a greenhouse in autumn. They produce an abundance of healthy foliage but may not flower or fruit if the climate and conditions they prefer can’t be imitated. Since the limited greenhouse space available to us off site is only heated to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it can be difficult to accommodate tropical species that prefer a warmer temperature, such as black pepper (Piper nigrum), which struggles through a winter sojourn in the greenhouse and does not always survive. Although we were very excited when our pepper set fruit last summer, the plant succumbed before we could bring it back out again this spring and the berries did not have the opportunity to ripen into peppercorns.
Members of the ginger family in the collection, such as galangal (Alpinia galanga), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), true ginger (Zingiber officinale), and turmeric (Curcuma longa) have a much easier time of it. The attractive foliage of the easily grown cardamom is maintained all year round, while both the ginger and the turmeric go dormant in early winter, putting out new shoots in the spring. Although we have grown gingers successfully for some time, I have not known them to flower. We were both pleased and surprised a few weeks ago when the turmeric put out the first of three leafless stems covered with oblong clusters of beautiful and long-lasting white and green flowers.
Unlike ginger, which is prized for its heat and strong flavor, turmeric is more valued as a colorant than as a condiment. The pigment contained in turmeric root, known as curcumin, imparts a characteristic bright-yellow color to curries, mustard pickles and preparations, and many other food products. An ancient cultigen whose wild form is not known, turmeric is believed to be indigenous to India, where the rhizomes, fresh or dried, have a long history of use as a spice and a dye, as well as a medicament for stomach ailments and catarrh.
When Marco Polo encountered turmeric in China in 1280, he described it as having both the color and flavor of saffron. While it’s true that the color is similar, turmeric neither tastes nor smells like the much more costly true saffron, Crocus sativus. (Turmeric is sold to the unwary as true saffron to this day. If it’s cheap, it’s turmeric.) Color was a very important element in courtly cuisine in the Middle Ages and turmeric may have been valued on that ground alone. I haven’t been able to document the use of turmeric as a spice, unlike ginger, which was second only to pepper as an exotic ingredient in medieval European cookery. Turmeric did have a limited place in the pharmacopeia, although it did not have as many medicinal virtues as its close relative, zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria). The fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis recommends that turmeric be smeared on the skin to remove morphews, i.e., leprous eruptions or other lesions.
Andersen, Frank J. Herbals Through 1500. New York: Abaris Books, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food Plants of the World. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.