Herbs in History: Turmeric
Curcuma longa L.
Illustration 1: Powder of turmeric (Bradut Sirbu)
Turmeric from Curcuma longa L. (fam. Zingiberaceae) is an almost mythic plant that attracts because of both the fascination of the East and, possibly more, its radiant color, of a deep, bright, and sunny yellow.
To the Root
Now mostly known in the form of a fine powder (Illustration 1) or short fragments of roots, Turmeric is the rhizome of Curcuma. Whereas Carl Linnaeus identified two species (Curcuma rotunda and C. longa), these appeared to be two types of the rhizome of the C. lunga species: the central rhizome corresponding to Linnaeus’ C. rotunda and the elongated, lateral one to C. longa. Current taxonomy identifies possibly 80 species in the genus, half of which are indigenous to India.
The species used for human consumption is principally C. longa (syn. C. domestica Val.) and secondarily C. xanthorrhiza Roxb. and C. malabarica Vel. The species C. longa itself appears in six different taxonomic varieties:
C. longa var. typica
C. longa var atypica
C. longa var. camphora
C. longa var spiralifolia
C. longa musacifolia
C. longa var. platifolia
Most of the individuals of C. longa growing in India belong to the varieties typica and atypica.
Curcuma longa is a tall perennial rhizomatous erect herb (up to 1 m = 40 inch), with two to five aerial stems per plant of 90-100 cm (= 36-40 inch) and seven to twelve leaves in a green sheath that forms the stem. The lamina is lanceolate or elliptic, thin with acuminate tip, green or dark green on the upper surface and pale green below, with a length of 30 to 40 cm (=12 to 16 inch) and a width of 8 t0 12 cm (3 ¼ to 4 ¾ inch). The inflorescence is a cylindrical fleshy, central spike with a length of 10 to 15 cm (= 4 to 6 inch) arising through the stem, and 30 flowers in a spike that open one at a time. The tubular corolla is whitish with a yellow tip (Illustration 2). The small seeds are brown, ovoid. While those on the uppermost and lowermost bracts are sterile, the others are viable. At the base of the aerial parts, below the ground, the rhizomes are formed with one or more mother rhizomes, and primary, secondary and possibly also tertiary fingers, with the whole forming a compact clump. They are usually light brown externally, with different colors internally, from white, yellow with greenish borders or various shades of yellow, to a great many nuances of orange, from light to deep and even bluish to dee blue. Supposedly native to the Indo-Malayan region, the genus might have been domesticated in India as half of its species (including C. longa) are indigenous to India. At any rate, it has a long history in India, going back to the pre-Aryan Indian populations, and it has deep roots in Indian society, life, religion, and culture. Suffice to mention that it appears in the Vedic literature possibly as early as the period 1000-1500 BCE, and that devotees apply it on their forefront as an auspicious sign, as do also married women to denote their marital status.
Backward in Time
Illustration 2: Curcuma longa (Comzeal/Getty Images)
From India Turmeric spread widely and it is now grown in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, China Japan, Korea, the South Pacific Islands, East and West Africa, Madagascar, the Caribbean islands, and Central America. The major producer and exporter is India. Turmeric is mostly known as a fine power obtained from dried rhizomes.
Going backward intime, the Rhizoma Curcumae is duly described and analyzed in the Pharmacographia compiled in collaboration by the German pharmacognost Friedrich Flückiger (1828-1894) and his English colleague Daniel Hanbury (1825-1875), and first published in 1874, one century after the supposed introduction of Turmeric to Jamaica in 1873. Almost three centuries earlier (actually in 1578), the Spanish physician and surgeon Cristobal Acosta (1512-1580) described it as the saffron from India in his Tractado de las Drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales (Treatise on the Drugs and Medicines from the West Indies) first published that year in Burgos. He compared Curcuma leaves to those of orchids or squill, and its rhizome (which he identified as a root) to that of ginger outside, but yellow inside, with a taste that is bitter, but not as much as that of ginger. If he goes on mentioning that this saffron of India is much used in medicine by the Indians, he does not provide much detail about such uses, limiting them to ophthalmology and helminthology (eliminating intestinal worms).
The designation of Curcuma as the saffron from India was not new as it already appears, though in a less explicit way, in Il Milione (The Million), that is, the account of the travels to China made by the Venetian Marco Polo (ca.1254-1324). In his description of the Kingdom of Fugiu (most probably the present Chinese province of Fujian), Polo mentions that “They [the local people] provisions in great abundance … ample supplies of ginger and galanga, so that for a silver Venetian grosso you can buy eight pounds. And there is a fruit or flower having the appearance of saffron, and though not really so, yet of equal value, being much employed in manufacture.”
Curcuma was making its way into Chinese culinary culture at that time. In the treatise Yinshan Zhengyao (The True Principles of Eating and Drinking), the dietitian Hu Sihui (d. 1330) listed it among the species newly introduced into Chinese cuisine. Significantly, this treatise was compiled for the emperor Tugh Temür (imp. 1328-1332), of the Yuan Dynasty which emerged after the Mongol conquest of a large parts of the Asian continent. It is probably thanks to the Mongol conquest that the Chinese World discovered these new spices, as the Mongol Empire unified a vast area from the Arabic Empire in the West to China in the East.
In fact, Turmeric was known and used in the Arabic World. And it is from there that its name Curcuma came. Through translations of the Arabic medical literature into Latin, Curcuma also reached the West. In his dictionary or materia medica and plant names, the compiler Simo identified as Simo of Genoa (late 12th-early 13th cent.) lists and describes curcuma (which he designed by this name in a transposition of its Arabic name) as “a root of yellow color used to dye clothes, which is the celidonia of Avicenna”. As it appears from other entries of his dictionary, several tinctorial plants used to produced yellow were confused, among them carthamum (Carthamus tinctorius L., Bastard Saffron). And also the celidonia minor of Avicenna.
Continuing our backward travel through time, we discover that Turmeric was introduced into the Arabic World in the 9th century CE. It appears indeed in the work Tabassar bi’l-Tjara (Investigation of Commerce) by al-Jahiz (d. 869), Three, we learn that, whereas the Arabs imported sandalwood and coconuts from India, they did not buy Curcuma there, but in Yemen. In fact, Yemen, in the south of the Arabic Peninsula, was a relay in the maritime route between India and the Arabic World, at the entrance of the Red Sea. It was a harbor for the ships to anchor and certainly also a marketplace at the frontier between East and West.
A similar phenomenon appears earlier in the West, with the presence of Turmeric in the tenth century in northern France, at the abbey of Corbie. The monks did not acquire Curcuma directly from a trader, but from the city of Cambrai, up north. It is highly probable that the Turmeric load in Cambrai came from maritime trade, possibly from the harbor of Boulogne-sur-mer. Going backward, ships sailed through the English Channel, the Atlantic and, once they passed the Gibraltar strait, through the Mediterranean up to Byzantium where they probably loaded their cargo. We do know, indeed, that Turmeric was known and used in the Byzantine Empire. In the early times, in the 6th century, it did not reach the capital Constantinople by sea as one would assume, but by land, through the north branch of the Silk Roads. The fact is that, in the 6th century, Byzantium was waging war against the Persian Empire, something that cut the southern land routes for the trade of goods of all kinds from the Persian Gulf and, beyond, the Indian Ocean. Alternatives had to be found. The north Silk Roads were the right ones.
History of the trade in Turmeric usually does not go beyond that time. A traditional historiography of the transfer of plants from East to West refers to the expedition of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). Through his unprecedented expedition to the East, he brought back to the Mediterranean several plants he discovered in the lands he crossed with his troops (including from India). Turmeric does not seem to have been among these plants newly introduced to the Greek World in that way. Perhaps the scientists who accompanied Alexander’s troops did not encounter it or they did not notice it.
In fact, it might be that Alexander’s scientists did not need to bring Turmeric to the Mediterranean World and to acclimate it as Greece already knew it.
In his Historia Plantarum (Inquiry into Plants), the Father of Botany, the Greek Theophrastus (4th/3rd cent. BCE), enumerates the scented plants used for perfume-making. Among them, Costus, Saffron, Myrrh, and Nut Grass. Then, he adds that, even though some of them “grow in many places, the most excellent and the most fragrant come from Asia and sunny regions”. There is one exception, however: Iris, which thrives in Illyria, that is, the region to the east of the Adriatic Sea, corresponding to the former Yougoslavia (present Croatia and Serbia) and Albania. Pursuing, he writes that, in Thrace (North-East Greece), there are some small roots with a perfume similar to, but lighter than, that of Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi (D. Don) DC). This is traditionally considered to be a reference to Turmeric. If so, we have here an implicit affirmation that Turmeric had already been introduced to the Mediterranean World by Theophrastus’ time and, more than anything, that it had been successfully acclimated. More significantly, the presence of Turmeric in that region hints at its arrival from the northern branches of the land routes of the Silk Road, in a time that cannot be determined, but which was before Theophrastus’ epoch.
This possible local population of the plant might have been abandoned or not have been sufficient to meet the demand as, in the 1st century, the fresh plant does not seem to be known. A careful screening of the major compilation on materia medica produced in Classical Antiquity, De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent.CE), allows indeed to identify Turmeric in the work as already did the Italian translator of, and commentator on, De materia medica Pietro Andrea Matitoli (1501-1577) in the 16th century. Dioscorides’ text, though brief, is clear. It comes after the description and analysis of Nut Grass (Cyperus rotundus L.) and reads as follows:
There are reports about another genus of Nut Grass growing in India, similar to Ginger, which is yellow when chewed.
The association with Nut Grass might be surprising at first glance because the root of Nut Grass is round and, as per Dioscorides’ own description, similar to olives. No similarity with the rhizome of Curcuma, the shape of which is exactly rendered, instead, by the comparison with Ginger. This hints at the fact that Dioscorides might not have known the plant itself, but only the drug, that is, the rhizome, which he might have known only through the drug trade, and not as a living plant.
The Fascination of Yellow
Long history that of Turmeric, which attests to repeated attempts to bypass the obstacles to obtain the rhizome of Curcuma and, probably also, hints at the fascination by, and attraction to, yellow as a sign of the many benefits procured by Turmeric, which has been used through the centuries and the many cultures in which it can be found for what is now identified as antioxidant, antibacterial, antitumoral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, to ease stomachache, stimulate bile excretion, and to treat diarrhea, intermittent fever, edema, bronchitis, colds, worms, leprosy, kidney inflammations, and cystitis, in addition to headaches, flatulence, upper abdominal pain, chest infections, colic, amenorrhea, and blood rushes. And to color food and life, now particularly with the Bengal variety, which is of a deep yellow.
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