Down to Earth: The Real Curry Plant

Learn how to discern the real curry plant (Murraya koenigii) from commonly misidentified curry plants (Helichrysum italicum).

| June/July 2003

  • Edible curry leaf (right), and non-edible “curry” plant (left).

"Is this the real curry plant where curry seasoning comes from?” the lady asked, holding a little pot of herbs tenderly in her hand.

“Yes, that’s where Indian curries get their flavor,” the sales clerk said with a smile.

Next to me at a flower and garden show was a plant nursery booth, selling many varieties of herbs. I wasn’t surprised at the clerk’s answer, but I was sorry that she was misleading her customer.

The truth is, the plant called “curry” isn’t actually an edible plant at all. Helichrysum italicum, sometimes listed as H. angustifolium, is the herb commonly sold as a curry plant by well-meaning nurseries and garden centers. It has a warm, curry-like fragrance, but is bitter to the taste. More reputable plant sellers will tell you the plant is not edible and will encourage you to grow the plant for use in potpourris and wreaths, but not for food. For more information about this plant, check The Big Book of Herbs (Interweave, 2000) by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio.

The seasoning we think of as curry is called masala in India. That seasoning makes curries, but curries differ by their ingredients just as the meaning of the word “salad” differs based on its ingredients in our culture. In India, the word kari means sauce or stew. All of these stews have the masala seasoning in common, so in past centuries people outside of India simply lumped everything together calling it curry, a variation of the word kari, for sauce.

Actual curry seasoning is a blend of ground cumin, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, red pepper, fenugreek, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, mustard, fennel and mace. In that mix, several of the ingredients, including mustard, cumin, coriander, fennel and cinnamon, are roasted separately before being ground and added to the other ingredients. Curry is a complex seasoning that varies from region to region (nothing like the generic combination found in the grocery store), even from family to family throughout Southeast Asia. Curry seasonings are often vastly different depending on the season. During summer months, the seasoning is mixed with spices that cool the body and in winter, a different blend helps keep the body warm.

9/5/2018 6:51:06 PM

Thanks to the author for this, I was actually look for this plant at a nursery and DID clarify to the clerk that I wanted the one that looks like lavender, smells like curry, but is good for skin. Mars2001 thanks for clarifying the medicinal, this is such a powerful plant. I'm currently searching for how to grow it potted. I am hoping it will grow in a pot like lavender with sand and rocks mixed in, but can't find good information on it. Fingers crossed it works! The French call it "immortelle" for it's powerful healing applications and anti-aging potential on skin.

6/26/2015 5:24:14 AM

I couldn't agree more: why call it a curry plant? That makes no sense to me, either. It may not be edible, but I must correct the statement that it is not medicinal. The flowers of the Helichrysum Italicum plant are used to make one of the most powerful and versatile essential oils in existence. I discovered that it is incorrectly referred to as a "curry" plant only recently. There are several other varieties of Helichrysum plants from which essential oils are produced, but in my experience, none anywhere near as powerful as the Italicum. It is said that the plants that make the most powerful Helichrysum Italicum essential oil are grown on the French island of Corsica. The flowers are harvested under very strict guidelines, right down to the time of day they are picked - during the cool early morning hours before the sun rises for highest quality and potency, so yeah - it sounds like they are pretty picky little plants! You can guess that Helichrysum Italicum EO is expensive (just imagine how many thousands of those flowers it takes to make an ounce of essential oil), but it is absolutely miraculous for skin, especially facial skin. You can tell I'm a fan of the essential oil of this plant, just as I am of real curry. I'm still not getting the reference to a word that essentially means "sauce", though ! Thanks for the great information!

10/7/2014 5:24:56 PM

Your article clarified the Curry confusion I was having, it is a concise sifter of all that fuzz. Thanks, Auri

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