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Lowcountry Turmeric

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Lowcountry Turmeric
Text by Bridget Manzella. Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock.

The sun is setting on Spade and Clover Gardens as John Warren harvests turmeric—each root glowing orange in the last of the light—and deposits it in a bucket he pulls along behind him. “The work is easy,” Warren says. “Most of the time you can just yank the rhizome out of the ground by the stalk, cut off the roots, and spray it clean.”

Turmeric—grown as a perennial in tropical climes for thousands of years—is treated as an annual in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In early spring, the seed is pre-sprouted in trays in the warm, enveloping dark of a greenhouse. Then, after the last full moon in April when the soil has warmed to over fifty degrees, the starts can be safely planted in the ground. Eight months later, the immature turmeric is harvested by hand after it has grown to size but before the first hard frost of winter.

“The work is easy,” Warren says. “Most of the time you can just yank the rhizome out of the ground by the stalk, cut off the roots, and spray it clean.

Just two seasons old, Spade and Clover Gardens occupies two acres of the surrounding hundred-acre Rosebank Farms on Johns Island, which has been cultivated for an impressive 300 years. Rosebank grows a variety of classics, such as collards, okra, peas, turnips, tomatoes, and watermelon, along with other staple crops. Turmeric has never been grown here before.

mango turmeric, a black turmeric, and a yellow turmeric.
A self-described artist-turned-farmer, John Warner is growing Hawaiian turmeric, mango turmeric, a black turmeric, and a yellow turmeric. Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock.

A self-described artist-turned-farmer, John Warren started farming on Johns Island more than three years ago at Joseph Fields Farm, just up the road from where he is now. Before that, he gained the bulk of his “intensive farming experience” at Blazing Star Farm on Block Island, Rhode Island. And before farming, Warren was making architectural molds for historic preservation projects.

Warren moves quickly but methodically down the rows. After the harvest, everything will be trimmed, washed, packed, and stored for pickup at 5 a.m., when all eighty hands of it will go to the farmers market in downtown Charleston.

At the Spade and Clover booth at the market, the theme is increasingly Southeast Asian. Warren features leeks, green garlic, Napa cabbage, daikon and Shunkyo radish, bok choy, Thai hibiscus, Chinese kale, ginger, and turmeric, among other traditional Asian produce. Making a particular impact beside the baskets of ginger and turmeric roots are the whole ginger and turmeric plants for sale neatly bundled together with rubber bands.

Hawaiian turmeric root, the type Warren sells, has pale orange flesh and a thin skin when harvested young. Given more time in the ground, it develops a darker color, more fibrous flesh, and a rough brown skin. When consumed fresh, young turmeric is mildly bitter and spicy and has a warm, earthy quality, whereas mature turmeric is a bit more pungent in flavor.

When it comes to selling turmeric, Warren emphasizes the health benefits. “Turmeric is medicine,” he says. “I grow it to help people with diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, inflammation, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and cancer. The benefits of curcumin [the active compound in turmeric] seem to just go on and on.”

Many of Warren’s customers are curious about turmeric. A few have taken it in capsule form or have used it as a spice in Asian-inspired dishes. Though it is easy to find in powdered form, it is rare to see turmeric whole. Occasionally, whole turmeric can be found at Whole Foods or other specialty grocers, but it is always the mature kind, usually a bit past its prime, having been imported from Mexico.

Locally in Charleston, Warren’s turmeric is sold at The Daily Café and grocery where Turmeric Tang, a juice shooter with coconut water, cayenne, and fresh turmeric, is on the menu and frequently sells out. Several other restaurants in the area feature Warren’s wares, including Sean Brock’s flagship McCrady’s and current “it” restaurant Edmund’s Oast.

Apart from the culinary scene, celebrated hat maker Leigh Magar has been using Warren’s turmeric to dye hats and clothes since he first started growing it. The rare leftovers find their way to GrowFood Carolina, a food hub connecting local produce with area restaurants and grocers.

Besides Warren, Meg Moore of Dirthugger Farm on James Island is the only other person growing turmeric in the Lowcountry; it was from Moore that Warren got the idea to grow turmeric in the first place. (Moore, for her part, got the idea from Susan Anderson of East Branch Ginger during a 2009 conference in North Carolina.) There is a network of turmeric farmers up and down the East Coast, connected through three principal sources: Puna Organics (now Biker Dude) in Hawaii, East Branch Ginger in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Warren is planting four times the amount of turmeric he planted in previous seasons: “I only grew Hawaiian red last year, but now I’m trying a mango turmeric, a black turmeric, and a yellow turmeric.” The November harvest cannot come quickly enough.