On Growing the Beautiful, Flavorful Curry Leaf Plant

There are few things more satisfying than harvesting this South Asian cooking staple.

June 23, 2022
Photo by Melati Citrawireja

You can Grow Your Own Way. All spring and summer, we’re playing in the vegetable garden; join us for step-by-step guides, highly recommended tools, backyard tours, juicy-ripe recipes, and then some. Let’s get our hands dirty.

It was an especially cold and sunless April in Chicago this year when Margaret Pak brought home her young curry leaf plant, so she decided to take it into the bathroom a few times when she showered to mimic the tropical air it’s used to (in India and Southern Asia), based on a tip from a local nursery.

“This is my second curry leaf plant,” sighs Pak. She’s the co-owner with husband and Kerala, India native, Vinod Kalathil, of forthcoming Chicago restaurant Thattu, which specializes in Kerala cooking. Pak suspects her first plant died due to insufficient care. This time, she’s determined to succeed. “It’s important for me to see it grow before my eyes, to smell and touch it,” she says. “The flavor is so transportive, like being at home in Kerala when Amma (mother) goes in front and picks curry leaves, brings them into the kitchen, crushes, and feels them to get oils out to make fish for lunch.”

Pak spent months asking around at local nurseries and scouring her social networks for leads on curry leaf plants or seeds. Indeed, across much of the U.S., if there’s one thing trickier than caring for a potted curry leaf plant (also called kadipatta or kariappala), it’s getting hold of one. She finally nabbed a propagate from Instagram friend Jes Thomas, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based chef-instructor and culinary assistant on Food Network’s Chopped.

Jes Thomas' curry leaf plant Photo by Jes Thomas

Since procuring a cutting from her in-laws some twenty years ago, Thomas has doggedly coaxed her potted kariappala plant to maturity through issues ranging from spider mites to sticky and yellowing leaves, and even one “horror film”-esque incident when an ant colony took up residence beneath the plant. She’s also given away a dozen or more propagates throughout the Midwest and South—to everyone from chefs to botanists—with mixed results. But she keeps at it, and not just for the subtle aromas of kaffir lime and anisey basil that the leaves impart on quintessential dishes like sambar and pachadi.

“I see people from other parts of India around my age reclaiming their heritage,” says Thomas, whose parents emigrated from Kerala, likely with a few kariappala cuttings in their suitcase. “Growing and sharing the curry leaf, to me, feels like I'm doing that.”

What makes the curry leaf plant so finicky, Thomas says, owes to forcing it outside its native tropical climate into colder and drier ones where it must live indoors for part of the year: “In hot and humid places like Florida and Texas, and India, of course, it grows like a weed, so there’s not much need to care for it.”

Grow it like a shrub

As such, those in areas with a frost can’t treat curry leaf plants like a “regular vegetable plant or lemon or orange tree,” says Zainab “Zee'' Husain, co-founder of Sacramento-based heritage plant nursery Kula Nursery. “Instead, I advise people to grow them to be more like a shrub.”

Lately, Husain has been dispensing tips to some 430 new kadipatta plant owners who bought them through a collaboration Kula Nursery did this spring with ethical spice trader Diaspora Co., around the same time Pak was on the hunt. (The plants sold out in four hours; next year’s collab already has an almost 900-person waitlist.) She says a hard pruning every spring and regular pinchings will help the curry leaf plant’s skeleton develop like a shrub, “which keeps it healthy, keeps the height down, and really helps with more leaf production.”

Kula Nursery Founder Zee Husain Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Pinching also helps stave off common ills like spider mites; “if you allow it to grow into a tall, skinny tree like it wants, it’s more susceptible to disease,” she adds. Should your plant get those pesky spider mites, by the way, Husain suggests giving it a healthy dousing of water, then individually removing the mites using neem oil or soapy water.

The curry leaf plant’s penchant for humidity explains the stickiness Thomas and others often encounter on the leaves and floor surrounding the pot. Taking a page from her parents (and their enviably 4-ft.-tall curry leaf plant), she treats it by mixing diluted dishwashing soap with a drop of olive oil and rubbing the solution on every single leaf. Husain’s similar, if more scientific, approach involves mixing 1 tbsp. biodegradable soap (like Dr. Bronners) per gallon of water, spraying each leaf, then wiping them with a moist paper towel—a ritual she repeats weekly until the stickiness is gone.

The stickiness is also preventable, by always watering the plant from the top (“a good bathing!” Husain cries), and misting the leaves about once a week during the growing season. Or, you know, simply taking it in the shower with you.

Other problems, like yellowing leaves, aren’t so easily diagnosed, however. During summer, this probably indicates overwatering, though it can also, irritatingly, mean underwatering. In winter, it more likely owes to iron chlorosis (inability to absorb iron into the roots) or magnesium deficiency. For the former, Husain suggests spraying the leaves with chelated liquid iron; for the latter, epsom salt spray.

“More often than not though, you can kind of ignore (yellowing leaves),” she adds. “By the time spring comes, the plant will shoot out new growth.”

Indeed, in the three years Husain has cultivated the curry leaf plant on a large scale (it was the first seed she ever sowed at Kula Nursery), she’s come to appreciate its hardiness despite its susceptibility to many issues. “I’ve seen them thrive indoors in cooler climates. It can be done.”

Thomas echoed this sentiment of resiliency to Pak. Even in the direst times when the woody stems have appeared all but bare, a reddish hue near the top was enough to indicate new growth would return in spring—meaning Pak possibly didn’t kill her first plant after all, Thomas says. Armed with this (tentative) peace of mind, Pak repotted her young plant and is so far seeing slow growth on two of the three stems.

“The point is, don’t throw it away,” Pak says (almost more to herself). “Give it a year; it can restart again. I think that’s amazing.”

Zee Husain’s tips for kadipatta care

  • Soil type: Use fast-draining soils like organic potting soil with perlite or cactus mix.
  • Between waterings, let the soil dry out almost two inches below top of the soil line to prevent overwatering.
  • Come summer, give your curry leaf plant plenty of outdoor time: As soon as the overnight low climbs to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, set your plant outside; when it falls below 50 in the fall, bring it in.
  • To fertilize or not to fertilize? Use a low-strength fertilizer, like fish emulsion, every other week during the growing season
  • If your winters are cold and dark, consider buying a heat mat at a nursery supply store. Set the temperature to 65 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and place the plant (and any other tropical houseplants) on top next to a sunny window. Faced with long stretches of gray winter days? Buy a small plant light, set it to four to six hours, and place the plant at least 6 inches away.

Ever tried growing a kadipatta plant? What's the first recipe you used the leaves for?

Photo by Angelyn Cabrales

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kumar's Garden
    Kumar's Garden
  • Marie Viljoen
    Marie Viljoen
  • johnocityny
  • Janet Martin
    Janet Martin
  • Hugh Davis
    Hugh Davis
Chicago-based food critic & freelance writer


Kumar's G. January 30, 2024
Here is a great way to increase growth on your curry leaf plant,
Marie V. June 26, 2022
That stickiness on the leaves and on the floor under the plant is a tell-tale sign that the tree has scale - an insect pest. They secrete so-called honeydew, which is sticky and sweet, and it sometimes attracts ants, which "farm" the scale. The indoor-living curry leaf plants can be quite susceptible to them. The soapy solution is actually a good way to treat scale, though, if the infestation is mild!
johnocityny June 26, 2022
I've raised and killed several in New York. Now I have two thriving in pots in New Orleans. I ordered all my Curry Leaf plants (Murraya koenigii) from Logees in Connecticut.
Medora V. June 28, 2022
Thanks for the tip. I just ordered a curry leaf plant from Logee's (and a few other things). I thought I might not live long enough to get to the top of a waiting list of 900!
Janet M. June 26, 2022
This is a very easy plant to grow. I live in the wrong climate--NC--but I've had one in a 5 gallon pot for about 10 years. I bring it in at first frost where it barely survives until spring. One interesting thing--the unpreferred and dry indoor environment encourages it to bloom, usually late Feb--tiny flowers with incredible perfume fill the house with a lovely light fragrance. Outdoors by April and in almost full sun, it puts out leaves like crazy and blooms again in late June, early July. I've given away tons of seeds from the summer bloom, and germination rate is good. My bush is sort of "spidery," probably because I harvest a handful of leaves quite often, and it always loses leaves in the winter. I tend to underwater, since it's so very easy to overdo it--gets lots of water regularly outside do to our generally wet climate.
Hugh D. June 25, 2022
I'm in SF East Bay. It took me two trees, and I used a large pot for the first couple of years, but now the tree is ten feet tall and produces all the leaves I can use. It is in a protected area near a wall. It produces prolific seeds and I have little trees.
Indra1956 June 23, 2022
I read with interest about growing curry plant. I have literally thousands growing in my yard. I used to sell curry leaves but the Dept. Of Agriculture stopped me from selling outside Florida because of the citrus canker problem. I hope they change some time as the canker problem has been out of control for years now and they have not really found a solution. I don't think curry leaves are the culprit.
SJhapamama July 16, 2023
The curry plant is in the citrus family.