Native to India, the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) grows as a small bush or tree that can reach anywhere from six to 20 feet tall. This low-maintenance evergreen produces fragrant white flowers, which grow into small, black fruits similar to berries. This fruit is edible, but should only be consumed carefully by removing the poisonous seed first. Foliage forms alternately on the stem and pinnate, comprised of many leaflets. The curry tree offers a distinct aromatic scent and spicy flavor, its leaves best harvested when fresh.
|Botanical Name||Murraya koenigii|
|Common Name||Curry tree, Curry leaves tree, Curry plant, Sweet neem, Meethi neem or Kadhi patta|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen|
|Mature Size||6 to 20 feet tall and 4 to 12 feet wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Well-drained fertile|
|Soil pH||Acidic (6.4 to 6.9)|
|Bloom Time||Spring through fall|
|Hardiness Zones||9, 10, 11, 12|
|Native Area||Indian subcontinent|
How to Grow A Curry Tree
Hardy in USDA Zones 9, 10, 11 and 12, the curry tree can grow in such tropical climates similar to its native region on the Indian subcontinent. When searching for a place to plant it outdoors, avoid a windy spot because this upright growing tree has a weak trunk and weak limbs.
The curry tree is frost tender. While it can survive mild freezing temperatures, it will need a lot of attention in the winter. The tree may shed its leaves and go dormant until spring. Gardeners who live below USDA Zone 9 or in other areas with harsh winters should grow the tree in a well-drained five-gallon container with drainage holes. Plant in spring in a good potting mix and set in a sunny window. As it continues to grow larger, repot in a larger container.
The curry tree thrives in full sun. Place in the absolute sunniest part of your garden for best results. With proper light and care, the tree will produce good foliage and more flowers which will yield more fruits. For the first two years, pinch off the flowers to encourage healthy growth.
Plant in well-drained, fertile soil. The curry tree prefers soil that is dry too. Allow the soil to dry out when it receives heavy watering or rain.
Give the tree a nitrogen-rich fertilizer after a month or two. Do not fertilize in the dormant period, which comes in the winter in cooler parts of the world.
Water regularly for the first two months. After that, offer moderate watering. Avoid overwatering all year long, especially in winter. The curry tree is an overall strong plant once established in ideal sunny, tropical conditions. It could only wither and die from extreme drought, record high temperatures or infertile soil.
In addition to pinching off the flowers in the first two years, the curry tree requires additional care for the rest of its life. Prune dead branches regularly and cut off any dead leaves to encourage continual fresh foliage.
Harvesting actually boosts health. When the tree has grown larger at the peak season, pluck off the fresh aromatic leaves to flavor stews and soups. Regular harvesting improves the present and future growth of the plant.
Curry leaf plants can be grown from seed or cuttings. Remove the seed from the pit of the fruit and remove its hard outer shell to encourage even faster germination. (Or you can sow the entire fruit itself, though sowing the seeds alone has been proven to have a higher rate of germination). Sow seeds in a good quality potting soil. Keep them damp in a warm area of 65 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If the conditions do not allow for such warm temperatures, layer the soil with polyethylene—a light yet tough synthetic resin made by polymerizing ethylene—or place in a greenhouse.
Propagation by cuttings known as "suckers" is the easiest way. One leaf with its petiole or stem is considered a cutting. Insert into a soilless potting medium. Take a three-inch-long part of the stem that has a few leaves. Remove the bottom one inch of the leaves. Place the bare stem into the medium. Mist generously. Cuttings will root in about three weeks in such a warm and moist environment.
While the seeds are toxic, the antibacterial and anti-fungal essential oil inside them is used in perfumery.
Uses in Food, Medicine and More
The curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) can be confused with the plant called "curry" (Helichrysum italicum, sometimes listed as H. angustifolium), which is popular in many nurseries and garden centers. While it does have a warm fragrance akin to curry, it tastes bitter. Be sure to ask sellers if the plant is edible. Helichrysum italicum is actually best served in potpourris and wreaths, but not for food.
On the other hand, the curry leaf tree described in this guide can be used in many ways. Limbolee oil, which can be used in scenting soap, comes from the fresh leaves. Wood from the tree is used for fuel in Southeast Asia. Leaves are roasted and added to the Cambodian soup called maju krueng and also used in Java in gulai or lamb stew.
Curry leaves have the most flavor when fresh, so continuously growing more leaves on a tree indoors or outdoors allows for a constant supply. They actually offer a citrus-like flavor. Welcome the fresh leaves into soups, sauces and stews. Add to vegetables, seafood and chutneys. Similar to how you would use a bay leaf, steep the leaves in the food as its cooking and then fish it out. Another option is to dry the leaves and crush them. Store in a jar in the dark and take them back out in a couple of months.
Because leaves are high in Vitamin C and antioxidants, Ayurvedic medicine recommends curry leaves to control heart disease and treat infections and inflammation. Leaves have antimicrobial properties too. They have been proven to lower cholesterol levels in animals and can even prevent Alzheimer’s disease in humans. Due to their iron and folic acid content, curry leaves may also be used to treat anemia. As folic acid helps the body absorb iron, this process protects against the liver damage that may occur from drinking a lot of alcohol or eating the fish that can then be flavored with the same curry leaves.