Species Guide: Plants for Food


Flower cluster of Javanese turmeric
Photo credit: Kalpana Kalpana (CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Common name: Javanese turmeric

Malay name: Temulawak

Local name: –

Scientific name: Cucurma zanthorrhiza

Distribution: East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia

Conservation status: Least concern, Cultivated, Naturalised.


Temulawak is a unique variety of ginger that grows in tropical Asia. This plant is very much like usual ginger, but has the characteristic yellow tinge and taste bitter. As the name suggests, Java ginger originated from Indonesia, more specifically from Java Island. Currently, most of the Temulawak is cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines.

Temulawak is a herbaceous, perennial plant.  It consists of a cluster of erect pseudostems up to 2 metres tall from an underground rhizome. Each pseudostem is made up of up to 8 leaves with blades that can be 40 – 90cm long and 15 – 21cm wide. The purplish, spike-like cluster of flowers sprout horizontally from the rhizome next to the leaf shoot, with 15 to 35 bracts (hardened, specialised leaves) arranged spirally, each containing a flower. The layers of bract turn purplish as they spiral up. This is different from the flower of ginger, which have greenish, spadix-like (resemble flower cluster of aroids) bracts with pale yellow, tubular flowers.


Java ginger seems to be safe for most people when used for a short time, up to 18 weeks. Nonetheless, it may cause stomach irritation and nausea when used in large amounts or for long periods of time. For pregnant and breast-feeding individuals, please stay on the safe side and avoid using it. Besides, don’t use Java ginger if you have liver or gall bladder problems, as it can increase the production of bile and worsen your condition. If you have gallstones, get medical advice before using it.

Culinary Uses

It can be eaten fresh and has a sourish, bitter taste. According to an article written by Juliana Harsianti, Temulawak is mostly used by beating the rhizome of this ginger and putting it into the dish being prepared. The rhizome of Temulawak contains curcuminoid, which is possibly useful to neutralise toxins, relieve joint pain, increase the secretion of bile and lower blood cholesterol.

The common use for this herb is to improve appetite, especially for children. To make a Temulawak potion, mash the rhizome and brew with tamarind and palm sugar, keep it boiling until only half the water remains.


The plant prefers slightly shady conditions and demands a moist, fertile soil which is rich in humus. Place the dried rhizome into the soil, covered up and don’t forget to water it. Fertilise the soil with compost to get health plant growth.

Biodiversity Benefits

Curcuma species are known to be pollinated by several species of bees and butterflies, as well as attracting ants and beetles that are known to feed on the pollen. There are records of Hoeybees (Apis spp.) and Blue banded bees (Amegilia spp.) visiting these flowers. Dense plantings of gingers can be used to create natural screens or hedges. These provide shelter for small mammals, birds and frogs.

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By ShangMing

A plant lover. I like small, medium, gigantic, ordinary, exotic, local, foreign plants. Just because they thrive to stand out.