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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."
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 Cultural Roots. "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 Cultural Roots 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."
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 Cultural Roots), 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.