Commonly known as the curry leaves plant, sweet neem, or kadi patta, the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) is known for its spicy aroma. It is a staple ingredient in many curries or chutneys. Curry leaf plants are a great addition to your garden if you regularly include Indian recipes in your culinary rotation as the leaves aren’t always available at local markets.
These small trees or shrubs can be grown outdoors in warmer climates or grown indoors where temperatures dip below freezing. They also do well when they split their time between being an outside plant and an indoor houseplant. They need full sun, slightly dry soil, and regular fertilization regardless of where you grow them.
Native to areas of India and Sri Lanka, curry leaf plants are classified as tropical to sub-tropical specimens. Their origin makes them challenging to grow outdoors across all USDA growing zones, but they are adaptable to growing indoors when given enough sunlight. Plants are typically started from cuttings or seeds but require one to two years to establish before harvesting.
Surprisingly, the curry leaf is not part of the standard spice mix we know as curry powder. The often-used orange powder is typically made from black pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, mustard, and turmeric. When added to dishes, the fresh leaves lend a citrus-like flavor and can be used to soups or stews similar to cooking with bay leaf.
There are three varieties of curry leaf: regular, dwarf, and miniature. The three types are differentiated by their size differences and overall growth habit or form. Regular plants are best for growing outdoors since they are the largest; the dwarf variety and miniature type are smaller and do well as a container or indoor plant.
- The regular curry leaf grows the tallest with a quick growth habit; the leaves of the regular type are usually what we buy in grocery stores.
- The dwarf type has longer, lighter green leaves and grows wider instead of taller.
- The miniature type, also known as gamthi, has the thickest leaves and most pungent aroma but grows the slowest. It sends up suckers as it grows to form a dense plant.
You have three different options to pick from when growing a curry leaf plant. You can buy a young plant from an online retailer (or a local nursery if they have plants available), or you can propagate a plant via seeds or cuttings. Cuttings are more successful than seeds but only feasible if you have access to a mature plant.
Plants are extremely frost tender and should only be grown outside if you live in an area that doesn’t experience freezing temperatures. They are recommended for USDA zones 8 to 11. For those living in a colder growing zone, you can grow one as a container plant indoors year-round or grow it outside during the summer and bring the pot inside during the winter.
Curry leaf plants are very sensitive to cold temperatures, making it crucial they aren’t planted outside until the conditions are suitable. Like other trees, it’s best to plant seedlings outside in the spring as soon as nighttime temperatures are consistently above 40°F. If you are starting plants indoors, give them at least two months before transplanting outdoors.
Sometimes starting plants from seed is the only available option if you don’t have access to plants to take cuttings from or a place to purchase a juvenile plant. Germination is fickle, but it is feasible. Start with fresh seeds, and make sure they have at least 68°F to germinate. You do need to remove the hard outer shell around the seed before planting.
- Squeeze the berries to pop out the seeds and put them on a paper towel to dry overnight.
- Fill a container with slightly moistened, good quality potting soil.
- Plant seeds about one-third of an inch deep, or about as deep as they are wide.
- Cover with potting soil and tamp down firmly.
- Place the containers where they will stay at room temperature or slightly above.
- Mist the potting soil as needed to keep it consistently moist.
To propagate a plant using cuttings, start with a leaf that has part of a petiole or stem attached, or you can use a root sucker. Choose a strong yet flexible stem but avoid using woody stems, opting for a younger, semi-hardwood piece with at least three or four compound leaves.
- Using sharp pruning shears, remove a cutting from the tree at least 3-inches long with several leaves.
- Remove any leaves growing from the bottom inch of the stem.
- Fill a container with slightly moistened, potting soil.
- Create a planting hole using your finger that is 2 to 3-inches deep and wider than the stem.
- (Optional) Dip the cut end of the bare stem into rooting hormone, tapping the stem gently to remove any excess.
- Push the stem into the planting hole.
- Fill the hole with potting soil, pushing it down firmly.
- Mist as needed to keep the potting soil consistently moist.
One of the great things about curry leaf plants is they grow in a range of soil textures and pH values (although they do best in neutral or slightly acidic pH). They are an excellent specimen to plant in an area of your yard or garden where you struggle to grow anything else because of poor soil.
Because of this tolerance for varied conditions, there isn’t anything special that you need to do to prepare the area before planting.
If you are growing your plant(s) outside, you must harden the rooted cuttings or seedlings before transplanting them outdoors. Start hardening off seedlings one to two weeks before transplanting. Set the containers outside in a protected spot every day for a few hours, bringing them in at night. Gradually increase their time outdoors until it’s time to plant.
If you are planting more than one curry leaf plant, space standard-sized plants about four to five feet apart from one another and about the same distance away from any structures. This spacing gives their root systems enough room, so they aren’t competing with neighboring trees for water, nutrients, and other resources.
A day or two before planting, water the soil thoroughly to wet it, making it easier to plant.
- Dig a hole in the ground about two to three times wider than the roots and at least twice as deep.
- Gently remove the seedling or juvenile plant from the container, ensuring you don’t break the stem.
- Using your fingers, tease as much of the soil off of the root ball as possible.
- Set the young plant in the hole, so the top of the potting soil is level with the surface of the soil.
- Carefully spread the plant’s roots out in the bottom of the hole.
- Backfill around the plant with the soil you dug out, gently tamping it down with your hands to push air pockets out of the planting hole.
- Water your newly planted tree slowly, allowing the water to soak into the ground before giving it more.
- Spread a few inches of mulch or finished compost around the base of the plant, covering the ground, but keep it from touching the stem.
Because of their South Asian origin, these plants do best in full sun to partial shade locations when planted outdoors. Indoors, they like a south-facing window that provides at minimum eight hours of light a day. Even though they love the sun, keep plants out of direct sunlight on the hottest, harshest summer days.
Curry leaf plants are very susceptible to root rot, so it’s critical you take caution when watering your plants. Allow the uppermost inch or two of the soil to dry out and then water thoroughly. During most of the growing season, they only need water once a week; water more frequently during the hottest part of the summer.
Curry plants need regular feedings of high-nitrogen (N) fertilizers to drive foliage growth during the spring and summer. Plants also need regular supplementation of iron, magnesium, and calcium. To provide all four nutrients, you can use a fertilizer formulated with all of them or add extra iron, magnesium, and calcium with different products.
- Option 1: feed your plant(s) once a month using a diluted liquid fertilizer with all of the nutrients, following the label recommendations for application rates.
- Option 2: feed them weekly with a liquid seaweed fertilizer or fish emulsion and then supplement the others. Apply iron sulfate or iron chelate every other month; apply gypsum for calcium supplementation on the “off” months. Once a month, dissolve Epsom salt in water for added magnesium.
Container-grown plants rarely need weeding, especially if you use a good potting mix that has been sterilized to be free of weed seeds. When growing outside, keep the area around the base of the plant weed-free to minimize problems with insects and diseases. Regular weeding also reduces competition for water and essential nutrients needed for growth.
Pruning is essential to keep your curry leaf plant strong and healthy. It helps to increase airflow through the middle of the plant and encourages the plant to grow fuller. Always prune plants in the spring, just as they begin actively growing for the season, making sure your pruning tools are clean and sterile.
- Remove old, yellowed leaves and any bare stems.
- If thick branches have developed on mature plants, cut the length back by one-third or one-half.
- Remove at least one-third from the top of the plant making a clean diagonal cut in the main stem. Pruning off the top encourages the plant to shoot out multiple branches below the cut, increasing the number of leaves and making the plant bushier.
Plants are susceptible to common garden insects, including mites, scales, aphids, fungus grants, mealybugs, and psyllids. Regularly check for insect infestations; if observed, spray plants with neem oil or another horticultural oil. They are also prone to black spot disease, which weakens the plant over time, making it more susceptible to other diseases and insect problems.
- As berries form on your plant, pluck them off to direct resources towards increasing foliage growth.
- Repot the plant into a bigger container every year for the first handful of years to give the roots ample space to grow. Then switch to repotting every two years.
- When grown outdoors, plant this herb in a site that is protected from the wind. Curry leaf trees have weak trunks and branches and are prone to snapping or breaking.
- Stop fertilizing your plant about a month before you move it inside for the winter, or the fall temperatures cause active growth to slow.
- Harvest leaves from the plant regularly to continuously encourage new growth.