The curry tree is a tropical to subtropical tree native to India. As you might imagine from the name, the leaves of the curry tree are used in Southeast Asian cooking, and they are particularly popular in India and Sri Lanka. In addition for being grown as a useful culinary tree, the curry tree is also grown for its attractive foliage and aromatic flowers. In regions of the world where the climate is favorable for cultivating curry trees, these trees can be found at some garden suppliers, and in Asian markets, especially markets which focus on Indian food.
This tree is formally known as Murraya koenigii, and it is also sometimes referred to as the curry-leaf tree. In the wild, it can grow up to 20 feet (six meters) tall, with a smooth trunk, simple elongated leaves, and dainty white flowers which produce a strong aroma during the blooming season. The flowers develop into black berries, which are incidentally toxic, so they should be avoided.
Curry leaves are used in a variety of Southeast Asian dishes, typically being toasted in oil in the cooking pan before other ingredients are added. The leaves add a distinctive aroma and flavor to the finished dish, and they are said to be beneficial for digestion in addition to being flavorful. In some regions, consumers even chew the leaves straight.
The “curry” in the name can be a bit confusing, as the curry tree does not produce leaves with a flavor like that of curry powder. The name is a reference to the Tamil word kari, which refers to any sort of stewed dish, especially one with vegetables, rather than the spicy dishes flavored with turmeric which many Westerners associate with the word “curry.”
Curry trees thrive in USDA zones nine through 11, and they prefer full to part sun and well drained soil. Many gardeners amend their soil with things like peat to promote healthy drainage, allowing the tree to dry out completely between waterings. Annual pruning will help the tree produce more flavorful leaves by promoting new growth; the leaves can be harvested at any time and used fresh for the best flavor. Curry leaves can also be dried or frozen for later use.
Both seeds and root suckers can be used to propagate the curry tree. If growing from seed, it is a good idea to use seeds which are as fresh as possible, because the seeds do not keep well.
Some people confuse the curry tree with the curry leaf plant, also known as Helichrysum italicum. These two plants are not the same thing; the curry leaf plant has a strong odor of curry, rather than the unique odor of curry leaves, and it is native to the Mediterranean. It is also a low-growing plant, rather than a tree, and the leaves are unmistakably not curry leaves.