by Dr. Lew Abrams

The first Polynesian sailing canoe voyagers who made it to the islands of Hawaii carried with them several key plant species they knew would help them survive in their new home. These “canoe” plants were selected for food, medicine, tools, and shelter. Olena- Curcuma Domestica, also known as turmeric, is believed to be one these useful canoe plants and has been utilized for generations as both food and medicine as well as a golden yellow dye. Turmeric has gained attention recently from natural medicine enthusiasts as over 40,000 peer reviewed research studies have documented its powerful anti-inflammatory and other health enhancing qualities. 

Hawaii’s semi-tropical climate, volcanic soils, and ample rainfall in windward areas are ideal for cultivating turmeric. To achieve turmeric’s maximum growth and potency, building soil fertility is essential. Ahimsa Sanctuary Farm in Haiku on Maui’s north shore has been exploring a range of natural strategies for restoring soil health and vitality using organic farming practices. These regenerative farming techniques involve careful preparation and supplementation of the beds prior to planting to restore the balance of nutrients and microorganisms. As we unearthed a bountiful harvest of turmeric rhizomes this week, we were pleased to confirm that our efforts to malama the a’ina are bearing fruit.

We began establishing a new field for planting turmeric by creating a long arcing berm made from cane grass (Guinea grass) pulled out and piled 6 feet high with an excavator. This wind row was turned into rich compost by running a drip line on it to keep it from drying out, and covering it with weed mat for several months. We also pumped living algae-filled water from a nearby tilapia pond onto the berm to inoculate it with beneficial microorganisms. After three or four months we uncovered the pile and turned it with an excavator to ensure that any remaining clumps of undigested grass and roots would be broken down. Six weeks later we spread the cane grass compost into a raised garden bed about 200 feet long by 16 feet wide. Earthworms from other areas of the farm were introduced to the planting bed and we spread bags of oyster shell lime, glacial rock dust, kelp (from Nova Scotia) and a truckload of black cinder to re-mineralize the soil and help with drainage. Bio-char, a mixture of charcoal and manure, was then tilled into the top foot of soil. Truckloads of wood chips were delivered and spread into a 6 inch thick layer, covering all exposed soil from the sun’s damaging UV rays. Finally the wood chips were saturated with a solution of indigenous microorganisms brewed in the tradition of Korean Natural Farming. After leaving the field undisturbed for a couple more weeks, when the top layer of wood chips was pulled back, we were excited to discover a white web of mycelium, the telltale sign of a burgeoning colony of micorrhizae, the beneficial fungi that live along the root hairs of plants, helping them to absorb nutrients from the surrounding soil.

Finally, it was time to plant small, pinky-sized pieces of turmeric a few inches below the surface in rows about 2 feet apart. Vetiver grass for mulch and oregano as a ground cover were planted around the perimeter of the olena bed. Non-GMO Papaya trees were interspersed along one edge of the bed, providing some shade.

Soon the first green shoots began to appear and within a month the vibrant striated green leaves of the young turmeric plants concealed most of the woodchip mulch. They shot up to three or four feet high and then produced some strangely beautiful waxy pale green flowers nestled among the leaves. As winter solstice approached, the edges of the leaves started to yellow and then just when we reached the shortest day of the year, the turmeric plants suddenly laid down and began to die back, signaling that it would soon be time to harvest. Earlier test harvests revealed pale yellow tubers but by waiting until February, the turmeric rhizomes have developed a rich yellow-orange color and pungent aroma and flavor. Using a flat bladed digging fork we have begun popping out brain-sized chunks of turmeric rhizomes embedded in dirt. When these clumps are carefully washed off with running water, clusters of bright orange tubers are revealed, resembling coral heads. The clusters are cut apart to allow additional soil removal and cleaning and then are set out on stainless steel mesh counters to dry. In a few days they will be ready for packing into boxes for sale, or will be loaded into a distiller for the production of turmeric hydrosol and essential oil, powerful plant medicines from the sacred A’ina.

Special thanks to Randyl Rupar for sharing his olena wisdom and to Simon Russell for the planting bed preparation protocol.