Sunday, 11 December 2011

Try This Plant - Murraya koenigii (Curry Leaf Tree)

If you're a fan of Indian food, or any other cuisine of the Indian subcontinent, then having a Curry Leaf Tree (Murraya koenigii) in your backyard is a must.  The delicate little leaves are full of flavour and are an essential ingredient in many curries and preserves.  When the leaflets are stripped from their stalk there's an olfactory pleasure that lingers on for a long time afterwards.  Whenever I cook with them I continually smell my hands and will even crush a few up in my fingers just to enjoy the pleasant aroma that comes when the oils are set free of their little glands.  While curry leaves are not a difficult ingredient to come by they don't have a long shelf life.  You have to use them within a couple of days of purchasing them because they don't keep well in the fridge.  They make even worse freezer specimens.  The perfect way to have curry leaves on hand is to grow a curry leaf tree yourself and I'm over the moon to have one growing in my garden.

A friend gave me the curry leaf tree as part of a plant swap when I was renovating my front garden.  It's always good to swap plants with other gardeners.  While saving money you also get to poke around someone else's patch and see how they do things.  As Russell Page once said, very seldom did he meet a fellow gardener who didn't teach him something, or help him hone his gardening craft in some way or other.  How true such sentiments are.  The curry leaf tree I have is several years old, exactly how old I'm not too sure but they are quite fast growing, even in Melbourne.  I have this specimen in a large pot on a balcony that gets morning sun and it seems quite happy now, though it wasn't always so.

When I first acquired this tree it was thriving.  Going into last winter I spent some time away and forgot to organise for someone to come and water the pots in the garden.  Upon my return the tree looked very sickly and soon after winter's chill settled in and it completely defoliated.  It was deflating to say the least.  However once the days started getting longer and the mercury began climbing I noticed leaf buds swelling on the tree - it was alive!  So I repotted it and gave it a bit of TLC over spring.  It now has a healthy abundance of leaves and at this very moment has just finishing flowering, with the fruits just beginning to form.

The fruits look like small berries and are edible too.  When the fruits turn black they are ready to eat.  They have the same curry flavour the leaves do but are slightly more intense.  M. koenigii belongs to the Rutaceae family, the same family as citrus and the native fuchsias (Correa spp.).  One common thread shared amongst members in the Rutaceae is the presence of prominent oil glands in the leaves, which is where the curry leaf tree's aroma and flavour derive.

M. koenigii grows well in Melbourne provided you keep it protected from frost in the first couple of years.  It will happily grow in the ground as long as you provide it some protection until it is well established.  Space is at a premium in my garden at the moment so I'm growing mine in a big pot.  The beauty of the curry leaf tree is that the more you harvest the leaves the bushier the plant will become.  A light prune will hep it bush up as well.  I wouldn't expect my potted specimen to get too much taller than it is at the moment as I'll be harvesting the leaves regularly throughout the warmer months.  The canopy will spread out over the years so I'll have to train the branches to get a pleasing shape.  If the tree was in the ground though it might reach anywhere from three to eight meters high with a spread of 5 meters or so.

Propagation of M. koenigii is straight forward but timing is very much of the essence.  The seed needs to be sown when it is ripe, which is generally when the fruits turn black.  The seed doesn't store well at all. You can remove the fleshy part surrounding the seed first if you want to but I don't think it is particularly necessary.  Sow the seed into a seed raising mix and keep in a warm light-filled spot.  Germination can take up to a month, so be patient!  Once the seed germinates pot on to a 15cm pot and grow on until the plant is big enough to be planted either directly into the ground or a larger pot.  Once the seed germinates  the curry leaf tree grows pretty quickly - you'll be harvesting fresh curry leaves for the pot in no time.

Happy gardening!


Mrs Bok - The Bok Flock said...

I grow this too! Loooooove it. I put it into all my Malaysian curries. Yum.

HybridTea said...

Hi, we are growing this plant in Northern California and it finally seems to be growing well after a year of slow or no growth. How big does the plant have to be before you can harvest the leaves? Do you have to wait for the first fruits before harvesting leaves?

Thanks for the article.

James said...

Hi Hybrid Tea

It depends how big your plant is, of course. I was given the one in the pictures by a gardening friend when it was about 3 years old. I started harvesting the leaves off it straight away.

I live in a temperate zone and the tree completely defoliates in winter. At the end of summer last year I stripped the leaves off a third of the tree and kept them in the freezer for winter curries. The tree flushed out the following spring like nothing had happened, so I suspect they're pretty tough.

As far as waiting for the fruits to harvest leaves, it doesn't really matter. I actually cut the flowers off the tree when they're finished (they're quite pretty in flower), as the fruits that then develop take a lot of energy from the plant. I'm only interested in the leaves for cooking, and when I remove the spent flowers I get a second flush of leaves from the tree - perfect!

I love it when plants work with you!

Anonymous said...

What did you repot with? Im trying to find the right mixture to keep my first plant alive :) I've heard that potting mix is great or something with peat moss, perlite and loam.