The base of curries

Curry is a mix of spices. The two basic ingredients are Murraya koeningii, curry tree and Curcuma longa, turmeric. Both species are home in India, the land of origin of curry mixtures. Many other spices can be added to make different tasting curries.
tubers below main rhizome
turmeric root on curry leaves

Curry leaf tree

The genus Murraya is in the Rutaceae, a family with about 1700 species in 158 genera. There are trees and herbs also outside the tropics. Thailand has about 28 genera with 70 species.
All plants in this family have oil glands with a nice aromatic to fetid smell.
The family is most known for the fruits in genus Citrus: orange, mandarins, lime, citron and many more. Some times these fruits are only cultivated for the volatile oil in the peel of the fruit. For example the volatile peel oil in C. bergamia fruits is the bergamot oil in 'eau de cologne' and 'earl grey tea'.

The genus Murraya has about 15 species, 3 in Thailand. Two species are cultivated in Thailand.

flowering shrub
flowering top of branches
ripe and unripe fruits
flowering branch
Murraya koeningii M. koeningii M. koeningii M. paniculata

M. koeningii syn. M. foetidissima Thai name หอมแขก (hohm khaek) curry tree or bush. It is up to 15 m. The green divided leaves of this tree are the name giving ingredient in curries. The Thai name means 'good smell of India', the Latin word foetidissima means 'top of bad smelling'.
The leaves should be used fresh. On drying the volatile oil is spoiled. M. paniculata, Thai name แก้ว (kaeo), Burmese boxwood. It is planted as an ornamental tree, with white good smelling flowers. The flowers are used for decoration and in cosmetics. The red ripe fruits are eaten raw.
The leaves, bark and fruits are used medicinally against venereal diseases, intestinal worms and dysentery.

The wood, special of the roots of Murraya species are used for decorative objects from chessman, flutes to walking sticks. The wood is hard, very strong and durable.


Curcuma is a genus in the Zingiberaceae family, largely of tropical herbs. The family has about 1400 species in ca 50 genera. In Thailand about 300 species in 26 genera.

The flowers has an calyx and corolla of 3 slips. The showy part of the flowers are modified stamens (staminodia): the lip like structure (labellum) are two staminodia, and the slips along the labellum are each one staminodium. There is one functional stamen present.

Many species are cultivated worldwide as spice, medicinal or ornamental plants. Spices like ginger, galanga(l), cardamom and Chinese keys belong to this family.
All plants in this family are aromatic plants with a creeping underground root system (rhizome). The flowers are at the end of the leafy stems or on separate leafless stems from the rhizome. Rhizomes and seeds are used as spice or medicine. If a species has a large rhizome it can alsao be used a source of starch.

The genus Curcuma has 80 species, in Thailand 50. Curcuma plants have flowers on separate stalks growing from the rhizome. The top of the inflorescence has showy bracts without flowers and is named comosus, the flowers are in the lower part of the inflorescence. Big rhizomes are useful as a source starch.

img/plants/zingiberaceae/curcuma_ginger_galanga.jpg img/plants/zingiberaceae/curcuma_longa_1.jpg
flowering plant
yellow labellum, comosus white
the three most used rhizomes Curcuma longa Curcuma longa Zingiber officinale Zingiber officinale

C. longa or C. domestica Thai name ขมิ้น (khamin) turmeric (Eng.) curcuma (Fr.) kunyit (Malaysia) The plant is up to 1 meter. The comosus is white, the flowers are white with a yellow spot on the labellum.
The rhizomes are colored deeply orange-yellow and have spicy, aromatic taste.
This is the spice that gives the intense yellow color to curry's, piccalilli, sauces , plastics and your fingers. The young shoots and rhizomes of the plant can be eaten as a spicy vegetable.
The plants are only known in culture and are a seedless triploid hybrid. The origin is S. or S.E. Asia. India is considered as a center of domestication. Cultivation is possible in all tropics areas, but India and S.E. Asia are the most important producers.

The aromatic compounds in the roots are volatile oils with turmerone and zingiberene and other compounds. This turmeric oil can be used as spicy component in the food and fragrance industry. The yellow-orange color is a mixture of curcumines, and is only found a few other plants in this genus. These are the antioxidant components in the powder. They are used as dyes in pharmaceuticals, foods and textile. As a dye it is a good substitute for saffron, the most expensive spice.
In Thai cooking the fresh roots is used. Turmeric powder is prepared from cooked rhizomes because the fresh roots are to corky for easy drying. Turmeric powder should be kept in dark and airtight containers. The volatile oil and curcumines are spoiled by light and oxidation.
As a medicinal plant it shows pharmaceutical activity against cancer, dermatitis, high cholesterol levels and AIDS. It also has insecticidal, fungicidal and nematicidal activity.

Other plants of these two families in the garden


The garden has 7 genera and 16 species, 9 species in Citrus.

img/plants/rutaceae/citrus_aurantifolia_fruit.jpg img/plants/rutaceae/citrus_aurantium.jpg img/plants/rutaceae/citrus_hystrix_01.jpg
a spiny plant
C. aurantifolia fruits C.aurantium young fruits C. hystrix


The garden has 10 genera and 50 species, but many plants have a Thai name only or no name at all. A few examples.
flowers at the end of stems
flowers polinater
on long leafless stalks
flowers with red bracts and red labellum
with white flowers.
Alpinia officinarum A. officinarum Etlingera elatior E. elatior E.elatior

More information

Information on PROSEA

An important source of information is PROSEA, a collection of 24 books in 19 volumes with information on South East Asian plants. See PROSEA.

This text is largely based on PROSEA 5(3), Timber Trees: lesser-known timbers p 389-391 (Murraya); PROSEA 13, Spices p 111-116. (Curcuma longa).

web site for spices

The best site for spices is certainly the web site by Gernot Katzer in Austria. Here you can find the names of spices in many languages, and information on the use of spices and even recipes for cooking.
This is the link to his English index of spice names.
Next links are to this side: curry, curcuma.

The gingers of Thailand by K. Larsen and S.S. Larsen, 2006 Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Chiang Mai; ISBN 974-286-040-8
A nice illustrated book over Zingiberaceae in Thailand, with a key to the 26 Thai genera (450 ฿ ).
Chapter 1 is an interesting introduction to the history of plant collections in Thailand. The real exploration started in 1902 with A.F.G. Kerr, an medicinal doctor. In 1920 Kerr was founder and director of the first botanical institute in Bangkok, the first herbarium in Thailand. This is very late compared with Western colonized countries.