By Deborah Taj Anapol
One of the biggest crops at Hale Akua Garden Farm on Maui’s North Shore is turmeric, or olena as the Hawaiians call it. Most people are familiar with olena in the dried powdered form which gives Indian curries their characteristic color, but the fresh root can also be eaten and is very potent medicine!
Olena means yellow in Hawaiian. It looks much like ginger but has a milder flavor and deep yellow-orange color when fresh. It’s considered the king of herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, and is known as an antifungal, lymph and blood cleanser, and contains circuminoids, which are known as an anti-inflammatory remedy. Its frequent use in Indian cooking is to promote health as well as for flavor. Turmeric root can be put in a juicer with other vegetables for an amazingly healthful elixir. Hawaiians use olena for purification and protection rituals by grating it into salt water and sprinkling with a ti leaf.
Olena is easy to grow in Hawaii. The soil should be prepared by digging down about 18 inches, and the consistency should be loose with no rocks. Form a bed for the turmeric to grow; the plants will grow to about 3 feet tall with beautiful yellow or white flowers. Only a small amount of humus needs to be added, as this is a root crop which can grow in poor soil, as long as there is adequate space for the root to develop.
The seed should be sorted, and only the plumpest and healthiest looking fingers of the root should be saved for planting. Don’t plant any that are shriveled or have mold growing on the tips. Plant by placing one finger of turmeric lengthwise in a small hole about 6-8 inches long. Mulch well with grass clippings, straw, or other mulching material. Keep watered but not overwatered, and in a few months the roots will peek their green heads out of the soil.
The best time to plant olena is in the early spring, and harvest will happen when the plant leaves turn brown, usually around Jan. It takes about 8 months to fully mature. Harvest carefully with your digging fork, and wash the dirt off first with a hose and spread out of the sun to dry. Trim off the roots, and they are ready to use. The round piece in the center, called “the mother” is usually thrown away (imagine that!) but you can use it soon after harvest before it turns brittle.