By Matt Gibson
First and foremost, it is important to clarify that growing your own curry leaf plant (Bergera koenigii, formerly Murraya koenigii) will not earn you the pleasure of making curry powder. The leaves are green, not yellow or orange like the powder. Curry powders are most often made from a mix of bold and delicate spices. The traditional yellow curry powder gets its color from its turmeric content. Curry leaves, contrary to popular belief and eventual realization, do not taste like curry powder, and they are not even an ingredient in curry powder.
However, in India, Thailand, and a handful of other asian countries, curry leaves are an essential ingredient of many tasty curry dishes, but they play a more delicate, but aromatic role in the background of the flavor profile, whereas curry powder tends to play the dominant lead when added to a dish.
Curry leaves have the strongest aroma and most pronounced flavor when used freshly picked. Add fresh leaves to soups, sauces, and stews. Use it the same way you would use a bay leaf. Just drop a few fresh leaves into the cauldron and let the curry leaf flavors blend into the soul of the meal you are making. Just like cooking with bay leaves, when you are ready to serve your creation, remove the curry leaves from the mix, so that its subtle but distinct flavor can be adequately appreciated without having to chew the dense, bitter leaves.
Varieties of Curry Leaf Plant
Though commonly referred to as the curry leaf plant, curry leaves actually grow on a small to medium sized bush, or shrub-like tree, instead of a small plant. Called sweet neem, or kadi patta in India, where it is cultivated Though there is only one main species of curry leaf tree, it does come in three distinct varieties, all of which have their own upside and downside. The three types are regular, dwarf, and gamthi.
Regular curry leaf trees grow very fast and range in size from 6 to 15 feet high and 4 to 12 feet wide. The leaves from the full size variety are what you will typically find in grocery stores and are the most commonly cultivated curry plants of the three options. However, if space is an issue and you don’t see yourself really using a large tree worth of curry leaves, you could opt to try your hand at the gamthi variety.
The dwarf version of the curry plant (Helichrysum angustifolium ‘Nana’ ‘Dwarf’) is a mere ten to 12 inches in height when fully matured. Dwarf curry is a great choice for a houseplant or patio dweller who is welcome indoors during the winter. Though it is much smaller than the regular variety, the dwarf curry plant tends to spread out when planted in a garden bed instead of a container, so you may want to put some boundaries up to keep your dwarf curry in its desired location only. Of all three curry plant varieties, the dwarf shrub has the largest leaves. Slightly more subtle in flavor than the curry tree leaves, the foliage on the dwarf plant is a lighter green than the leaves of the tree. The leaves of the dwarf variety are bitter to taste, though they emit the same pleasing curry aroma that accompanies the tree variety. Because of their bitter taste, dwarf curry plants are not typically grown to use culinarily, but as a decorative plant or ground cover. The dwarf curry plant will flower, producing pretty white blooms from late summer to early fall.
The gamthi curry plant is even smaller than the dwarf variety, reaching only six to eight inches in height. It’s not a very fast spreader like the dwarf variety either, in fact, it doesn’t tend to grow very fast at all. What the gamthi variety lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, producing the most fragrant and flavorful leaves of all curry plant types. Though not nearly as popular culinarily, the gamthi variety offers the same flavor and aroma of the regular tree variety but requires fewer leaves to flavor a recipe. Gamthi curry plants require full sun and a very well-draining soil, as well as light fertilization during the summer months only.
Growing Conditions for Curry Leaf Plant
The curry leaf plant can be grown at home indoors in most USDA zones. Growing curry plants outdoors, however, is only a good idea if you live in an area that does not experience freezes, as all three varieties of the herb are frost tender. Dwarf and gamthi varieties are hardy in zones 8-11, and the full size trees are suited to zones 9-12. Luckily, all you need to do if you live outside those few zones, is to plant your curry in containers. That way, you can put them outside during the warmer weather months and bring them indoors during the winter and before any expected frost.
When selecting and preparing a location for your curry leaf plants, pick a spot with full sunlight, warm conditions, and a very well-draining soil. Other than that, it is not a picky plant to provide for. It doesn’t require much in terms of water and is semi-drought tolerant. Curry leaf plants don’t need high quality soil either, nor are they dependent on a particular soil pH level to survive. Staking may be necessary if planted in a windy location.
How to Plant Curry Leaf Plant
Curry plants can be propagated from cuttings or seed, though the seed germination process is a challenging task. To grow from cuttings, just take a leaf, or a set of leaves, with a petiole or stem attached. If you can cut from a curry tree or shrub yourself, take a piece of stem that is at least three inches long and has several leaves. Remove leaves from the bottom inch of your cutting and insert the stem into a soilless potting mix, burying just the single inch of bare stem under the soil. Mist the cutting thoroughly immediately after planting and keep conditions warm and moist for the first three weeks until the plant takes root. Growing curry plants from cutting is much easier than attempting to grow from seed.
The seed of the curry leaf plant is actual pit of the fruit, which can be peeled and cleaned, or the fruit can actually be sown directly into the soil without all the effort. Be sure to acquire fresh seeds for a better success rate.
Sow your curry plant seeds in regular potting soil and keep the conditions moist, but not wet. The seeds will need the waterings to remain consistent and evenly distributed, as well as a temperature of at least 68 degrees in order to germinate. Amend the soil to improve drainage if necessary. The success rate for seed germination is not very high, so try not to get discouraged if you don’t succeed right off the bat.
Care of Curry Leaf Plant
Once established, the curry leaf plant doesn’t need a lot of attention. However, young plants take about 2 years to become fully established. Keep smaller, younger curry plants out of direct sunlight during especially hot weather, and make sure your pots or beds have ample drainage, as overly wet conditions are like kryptonite to the curry leaf plant.
Pinch the tips of the branches of young plants to encourage multiple branches and more leaf production. Prune back your curry plants during the spring and harvest leaves early and often to keep the plant producing as many leaves as possible. Pluck flowers right off of the branches as you see them, keeping the plant focused on leaf production.
Carefully transplant your mature curry leaf plants to a larger container when you notice the roots begin to come out of the drainage holes, taking care to disturb the root systems as little as possible in the process. Once your plant has been around for a decade, it should be in a 30 gallon container.
Feed your curry plants weekly (unless you are growing the gamthi variety, which only needs weekly fertilization during the summer) with a light fertilizer, such as a diluted seaweed solution. Bring your curry plants indoors during the winter dormancy period, especially in cold weather areas.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Curry Leaf Plant
Normally, curry plants remain free from pests and diseases. The pungent aroma that the plants emit usually work well to keep diseases and garden pests away, but in some adverse weather conditions, there are a few problems that may occur.
Spraying diluted neem oil or horticultural oil on your curry plants will help to keep pests and diseases away. Also, use a saltwater shower once every two weeks instead of regular watering if you notice bugs, spots, bite marks, or any other signs of infestation.
Want to Learn More About Growing Curry Leaf?
This film gives you an alternative growing method for propagating from cuttings using a rooting hormone to help the cuttings adjust to their new environments faster:
This medium-length YouTube film is a comprehensive growing guide for curry leaf plant. Consider it an unofficial visual accompaniment to this article:
This insightful video short offers growing tips for propagating, pruning, harvesting, and repotting curry leaf plants: