Gardening Magazine

Curry Leaf Tree, the Second Generation

By Gardenamateur

There we were at our friends Jolanda and Paul's place enjoying another great meal out in their backyard. In one corner of their very nice garden a young curry tree is doing really well. It's such a graceful, delicate tree, and useful in the kitchen too, where both Paul and Jolanda create many superb Asian meals. 

We used to have a curry tree, had it for a dozen years, but in the end it just got to be such hard work keeping it happy in its pot, and so we removed it.

Since then we've missed not having one here, and sitting there at Jolanda and Paul's recently both Pam and I realised we just had to get another curry tree for our garden. And so this is the story of what we plan to do with our second-generation curry tree. 

However, to start things, the best thing to do is just enjoy the beauty of this leafy, small, subtropical tree from Sri Lanka and other subtropical parts of southern Asia and southeast Asia.

Curry leaf tree, the second generation

A few years back Pammy did a beautiful botanical
illustration of the leaves and seeds of our curry tree.

Curry leaf tree, the second generation

And here's the original, first-generation
potted curry tree in its prime. I bought a
little white stone Buddha statue to sit at
the base of the tree. He had a lovely view
of the rest of the garden from that spot.

Curry leaf tree, the second generation

Our old curry tree even was the perfect spot
for two orchard butterflies to engage in a bit
of baby-making, captured in this photo by Pam.

Curry leaf tree, the second generation

The leaves of the curry tree have the mildly spicy flavor that
gives it its name, and its uses in the kitchen. From my various
recipe books, it seems to be used in two different ways. One is
as a fresh herb, chopped and added to the pot usually towards
the end of cooking. The other way to use it is to toss a whole
stem of leaves into hot oil at the very beginning of cooking
a curry, to flavor the oil. As far as I know, the berries aren't
used (or at least I've never seen a recipe using them).

One important little thing to note about curry tree berries is that they sprout very readily indeed, and they are also very attractive to birds. The downside of this is that in the right climate (usually subtropical) the curry tree can become a weed that invades bushland zones. Birds eat the seeds, poop elsewhere, and another tree grows. Certainly in our backyard, we were forever pulling out curry tree seedlings that sprouted from these fallen berries.

So now we've decided to grow another curry tree, but this time round I have some plans to keep things a bit more under control. Here's the new baby, or should I say, babies.

Curry leaf tree, the second generation

Baby curry trees, by the way for Australian gardeners, are now starting to show up in nurseries, as now is a good time of year to plant one. The one I bought had two stems, and when I unpotted them, they fell apart easily as two completely separate plants, with hardly any entangled roots. I repotted them as separate plants and will grow these on for a month or two and keep the healthiest one, and give away the second place-getter.

Curry trees are easy to grow here in Sydney. For a pot all it needs is a biggish pot, good quality potting mix, and lots of sunshine. Also put the pot up on pot feet so excess water can drain away. Slow-release fertiliser is ideal for all potted plants, and I just scattered some of the stuff made for citrus trees around my curry tree.

Your main problem is likely to be excessive happiness (not yours ... the curry tree's). Our first curry tree is the only plant I have grown which actually cracked the sides of its pot by growing too vigorously. The pot just fell apart, and you could see these muscular curry tree roots poking out the sides once the ceramic slabs fell away. So I repotted mine into a bigger pot, and it grew like mad again. These are such vigorous plants when happy!

I dare not put one in the ground in our small garden, however, as they will eventually grow into a tree 4-6m tall (14 to 20 feet), and we don't have space for something that big.

And so, like Blackadder's loyal sidekick Baldrick, I have a cunning plan. I am going to treat our second generation curry tree as a rather large bonsai.

For this year and the next, I will let it grow on until it's happy in a larger pot than the current one. However after that, I plan to remove our happy little curry tree from its "final" sized pot and cut its roots back, cut some foliage off the top, then repot it into fresh potting mix – but keep it in its "final" pot. I think spring will be the time to do that. I guess I'll eventually find out whether it will work.

My plan is to keep it down to about half the size of our original curry tree, which was about 1.75m tall (from top of potting mix to the top of the canopy of leaves) and it lived in a large pot 60cm across at the rim. If all goes according to plan, we'll have all the curry leaves we need for the kitchen, and a much smaller potted specimen for the garden in a pot that's about 40cm across, with a plant less than 1m tall.

At the same time, I'm planning to do exactly the same thing to our potted bay tree, another fabulously useful plant for the kitchen, but also another vigorous growing thing that needs a lot of taming, root trimming and repotting if it is going to stay here for many years.

Wish me luck! 

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