Curry leaf tree, a touch of India in the backyard
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Rishi Kumar’s grandmother brought curry leaf seeds from India, and his mother planted them 18 years ago at her home in Diamond Bar. Now the curry leaf has filled out into a mini-grove of slender stalks, bushy with the pointed leaves essential to Indian cuisine.
‘It suffered a little during the summer, so I put some horse bedding in there, extra water, and it did better,’ Kumar said. ‘The cold doesn’t seem to bother it.’
After graduating from UC San Diego in computer science, Kumar came home to his parents’ house and started gardening seriously. He started a community-supported agriculture project, or CSA, called the Growing Home and Learning Center, based out of the 2,500-square-foot garden around the house. He put in a series of cinder-block terraces, heavily mulched with forest humus and horse stable bedding, and started planting. An Ayurvedic garden is out front, where the lawn used to be; in the back, plants reflect his family’s Punjab roots: holy basil, neem (a tree believed to have medicinal properties), Indian jasmine.
But the curry leaf is the one that gets used daily, a few sprigs tossed into hot oil to flavor soups, curries, stews. ‘You don’t eat the leaf itself, but pick it out after it’s cooked,’ Kumar said. ‘It’s a wild plant. It’s nothing like curry powder, which we don’t use.’
Curry leaf (botanical name Murraya koenigii) is technically an herb, unrelated to something called the curry plant. The leaf’s anise-citrus flavor is best when fresh, not dried. Easy to start and maintain, the curry leaf tree does well in Southern California. It prefers a hot, sunny space. Finding a plant at a nursery, however, can be a struggle. The tree is a relatively common host for the Asian citrus psyllid, a highly threatening pest that spreads on wild curry leaf plants as well as on citrus. Plants sold in California must either be quarantined or regularly treated with an insecticide spray.
Exotica Rare Fruit Nursery in Vista has specimens of varying ages, from six-inch seedlings in seed bags to a 20-year-old boxed tree. The tree is a slow starter, nursery owner Steven Spangler said, taking two years to get large enough for a one-gallon pot. ‘It’s a good seller,’ he said, adding that March is the time to begin planting. You wouldn’t want to harvest leaves until after a full summer of growth. If maintained, trees can live for more than 50 years.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Curry leaf plants in the Kumars’ backyard in Diamond Bar.