Introduction to The Curcuma Plant

Introduction to the Curcuma Plant to get a bold-textured tropical look in a warm temperate garden.

Introduction to the Curcuma Plant to get a bold-textured tropical look in a warm temperate garden, there is a short list of perennials that fit the bill. One of my favorites is the little-known but amazing genus Curcuma. Curcuma, or hidden cone gingers, is a genus of mostly tropical plants known for their dramatic bold foliage and flamboyant floral show. Curcuma can range in height from just under 2′ to over 7′ tall. The slightly hidden flowers resemble psychedelic pinecones…a nice trip back to the 1960s. We urge our readers to visit the garden on our Open House Days in summer and fall to see our curcuma collection. One of the reasons that curcumas have never reached a high level of popularity is that they haven’t begun to sprout during the spring garden center season, but because of this, they can be interplanted with spring bulbs such as daffodils, which go dormant before curcumas emerge. Curcumas are plants that you must purchase as a leap of faith, then sit back and enjoy later in your garden. Cultivated for more than 4000 years, curcuma rhizomes have been a source of food, spice, and medicine, Curcuma longa rhizomes are dried and ground into the spice turmeric which gives curry powder its distinct color and odor. The spice has several purported medicinal uses including lowering blood pressure, slowing down Alzheimer’s disease, and relieving pain. The rhizome is also a source of a dark yellow dye used in cosmetics and food coloring. Curcuma amada rhizomes are eaten fresh and used as both anti-inflammatory medicines and contraceptives. Curcuma zedoaria rhizomes are eaten as a spicy, but bitter vegetable, and are also used to combat flatulence…move over Beano®! Oils from Curcuma are used in perfumes and, of course, many curcumas are grown as cut flowers. As gardeners discover that many of the species are winter hardy, there is tremendous growth potential in this market as well. Curcuma belong to the ginger family Zingiberaceae, which includes many useful herbs and ornamental plants. The spice, ginger (from Zingiber officinalis), is the best known and most widely used. Important ornamental cousins include Alpinia (Shell Ginger), and Kaempferia (torch-ginger). The gingers are more distantly related to other common ornamental plants such as Musa (bananas), Heliconia, Canna, and Maranta. All Zingiberaceae share a common trait in that their flowers produce just one true stamen. The genus Curcuma consists of between 80 and 117 species of medium-sized plants. Their center of diversity is in southeast Asia, but some species extend to the Himalayas, Southern China, Australia and the Pacific Islands. The name Curcuma was coined by Carl Linnaeus and refers to the Arabic word “kurkum” which is their name for the yellowish color of the root. Curcuma are commonly known by a number of common names, including turmeric, Indian saffron, Siam tulip, zedoary, and hidden lily. The first two names refer to its use as a spice and the name “hidden lily” refers to the fact that the Curcuma Plant species have short inflorescences that are obscured by the leaves.

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