The warm heat of curry dishes can all be grown in your garden. Curry plants, however, are often mislabeled and misunderstood. Before we really dig in, what does the word curry actually mean?
We think we know what curry means. The dictionary tells us that curry is “a dish of meat, vegetables, etc., cooked in an Indian-style sauce of strong spices and turmeric and typically served with rice.” But curry is more of a colonial grab bag name for a wide variety of regional dishes that can be prepared with a complex assortment of herbs, spices, and other flavorings, depending on the region of origin. These ingredients may or may not include:
And curry leaves. There are two distinctly different plants sold as “curry plants”. One is the real deal. The other is not.
Fake curry plants
Helichrysum italicum, sometimes listed as H. angustifolium, is a pale green European herb with yellow flowers that grows well in dry, rocky soil. This plant smells a lot like curry, hence the name, but it does not taste like curry. Also known as Italian strawflower and immortelle, young shoots are sometimes used in Mediterranean dishes for their bitter, sage-like flavor, and never in curry.
True curry plants
True curry plants are trees. The curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) is a member of the rue family, along with citrus. Being tropical to subtropical, curry leaf trees grow best in Hardiness Zones 9 - 12. They are very sensitive to frost damage. They can grow from 6 to 15 feet tall and 4 to 12 feet wide. There are three types of curry leaf tree: regular, dwarf, and gamthi. Dwarf trees are shorter and wider than regular trees and the leaves are narrower. Gamthi varieties grow very slowly and they produce thicker leaves with the strongest aroma.
Curry leaf trees will produce berries that will open up into fragrant white flowers. You can increase leaf production by removing those berries before they open.
How to grow curry leaf
Curry leaf plants can be started from seeds, suckers, or stem cuttings. Only fresh, ripe berries contain viable seeds and the husk must be removed before planting. The seeds contained in dried berries will not germinate.
Containerized curry trees
Curry leaf trees can be grown in containers, as long as they have nutrient-rich potting soil and good drainage. They need to be moved to slightly larger containers every few years. By the time your curry tree is 10 years old and at its mature size, it should be in a 30-gallon container.
Caring for curry trees
These trees prefer full sunlight but can grow in partial shade. Scorching summer sunlight can sunburn the leaves. If grown indoors, grow lights may be needed. If grown outdoors, your curry leaf tree will need to be brought indoors in winter if you live in Hardiness Zones 1-8. It will also need protection from wind. In either case, be sure to allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings to avoid root rot.
Curry trees should be fertilized once a month, March through October. Also, curry trees use a lot of iron, so iron sulfate should be added every other month, or so.
Curry tree pests and diseases
Mites and scale insects are the two most common pests of curry trees, along with aphids and citrus mealybugs. Asian citrus psyllids may also be present and this poses a serious problem. Asian citrus psyllids can carry a fatal disease called huanglongbing. Infected trees must be destroyed. Before accepting curry tree seeds or cuttings, make sure they are not from a quarantine zone. Leaf spot is another disease that may occur in curry leaf trees.
If you love curry, starting your own curry leaf tree is one way to enjoy the very freshest ingredients.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!