Curry leaf tree provides that wonderfully fragrant addition to southern Indian curries, soups, dhal and chutney. Although the main reason you would grow it is for its aromatic leaves, it’s also a good hedge, screen or pot plant. Usually known botanically as Murraya koenigii, it’s had a recent name change to Bergera koenigii (the original name given to it by Linnaeus), but you’ll still find it labelled Murraya koenigii in most nurseries.
Curry leaf tree grows well in tropical right through to Mediterranean and temperate climates and has compound leaves and fragrant flowers through spring and summer like its sister plant Murraya paniculata, often called orange jessamine. Don’t confuse the true curry leaf with other so-called curry leaf plants like Helichrysum italicum, a small grey-leafed perennial in the daisy family, which might smell like curry but is not the one used in cooking.
The best growing conditions for curry leaf tree are in full sun to light shade and it’s not at all fussy about soil type or even too particular about drainage. Anywhere that you can grow Murraya paniculata you can grow curry leaf tree, and that includes districts that have light frosts and colder winters. However like Murraya, it is also proving weedy in the bushland areas of the subtropics too, especially in southern Queensland and northern NSW. If you want to grow it there, you’ll need to make sure you pick off the berries before the birds find and spread them.
Prune your curry plant a couple of times a year to keep it bushy – and you’ll want to harvest the leaves anyway, so this should be easy. In a pot, mine has only grown to about a metre (3ft) after several years, but a Melbourne reader tells me she has some in-ground that are over 2.5m (8ft) tall. In warmer areas, they’ll easily get to around 4-6m (13-20ft) high. In ground, they’re tough and drought hardy once established but I hear they tend to sucker, so if that’s an issue for you, I’d stick to a pot, although that will mean more watering. Feed them regularly for strong, leafy growth.
You can buy curry leaf tree both as small plants from herb suppliers and also larger pots in nurseries, or you can propagate it yourself from either root cuttings or the berries, although root cuttings may increase its suckering habit. Pick berries when they’re half to fully ripe (black) and sow them in seed raising mix before they dry out, after squeezing the seed out of the fruit pulp. Only just cover the seed and keep them warm (above 21°C/70°F) and they’ll germinate in about one and a half weeks. But note, that although the flesh of the berry is edible, the seeds are poisonous.
Cooking with curry leaf – many southern Indian and Sri Lankan dishes use curry leaf to add a spicy taste that isn’t hot. Strip the leaflets off the central stalk and then tear or crush them between your fingers just before frying as this releases more flavour. When making a curry, they’re usually fried in ghee with the onions but you can also add them to scrambled eggs, rice dishes, vinegars and salad oils. Sauté curry leaf with mustard seed and add to dhal or vegetable dishes.
And if you get caught with bad breath, pop a few leaves into your mouth, leave them there for a few minutes and voilà, fresh breath! Or so, I’m told…..