The Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), also called Italian everlasting, is a typical wild plant of our Mediterranean scrubland. It’s a species known and used since ancient times due to its myriad medicinal properties. In particular, its flowers, with their distinctive yellow-gold color, have long been symbols of eternity and are associated with the Sun cult. A unique aspect of the curry plant flowers is their long-lasting preservation, giving the impression of never drying out. Curry plant is an exceptional plant; it thrives in the toughest and poorest soils and, with proper care, adapts well to domestic cultivation.
Let’s understand its botanical characteristics, properties, uses, as well as reproduction and cultivation techniques.
Botanical Identification and Curry plant Habitat
Curry plant is a wild perennial plant belonging to the botanical family Compositae (or Asteraceae). Its name derives from the Greek words helios=sun and chrysos=gold. It’s a plant native to the Mediterranean, primarily found in Southern European countries and Northwestern Africa. In Italy, it’s mostly located in the South and Islands, rarely in the North. It’s a crucial species in the Mediterranean scrubland, thriving in the most challenging areas to colonize. Particularly rocky slopes, abandoned fields, coastal dunes, and stony areas. In forest environments, it aids in soil consolidation and repopulating marginal areas, thanks to its robust root system. However, note that curry plant not only grows wild but, considering its properties, can also be cultivated in gardens.
Botanical Characteristics of Helichrysum Italicum
The curry plant is perennial and subshrub-like, having woody branches at the base and herbaceous consistency at the top. It grows from 25 to 70 cm tall, bushy in appearance, and highly branched. Its branches are arched and ascending in shape, with a gray-ashen color. Young branches are covered in small, smooth hairs. Over time, these form a thin protective layer that tends to detach. The leaves of curry plant are scattered and tomentose, also gray-ashen. They are 15 to 35 mm long and just over 1 mm wide. The flowers, the plant’s most notable part, measure from 3 to 3.5 mm in length. They have a typical yellow-gold color and a trumpet-shaped tube that widens at the apex, with five triangular teeth. The stamens of the flowers are inside the tube, with an inferior ovary and a style also internal to the tube. Curry plant flowers are clustered in inflorescences, composed of about 15 single flowers. These clusters, in turn, gather in corymbs, numbering 25-35. Pollination occurs through insects like bees, known as entomophily. The fruits are achenes, 3-5 mm long, oblong-ovate in shape. The apical part of the inflorescence bears a pappus of simple and deciduous hairs. This facilitates anemochorous dissemination, aided by wind and other atmospheric agents, similar to another wild plant we know well, the dandelion. The entire curry plant emits a pleasant aromatic scent.
Biological Cycle of Helichrysum Italicum
In nature, curry plant has a unique biological cycle. The above-ground part (herbaceous) of the plant renews annually. This allows the development of new basal shoots. In summer, it enters a quasi-vegetative state but already exhibits the typical clustered bunches situated in the leaf axils. After the first autumn rains, the shoots grow, culminating with the arrival of winter cold. This new phase experiences another dormant period, ending with the vegetative resurgence in late February to early March when the shoots develop. By April, internode elongation and the extension of leaves and flower stems occur. Blooming starts from late April to early May in coastal areas and June-July in higher regions. It’s a massive flowering, and individual flower clusters retain their color unchanged for about 25 days. Fruiting, with seed maturation, occurs 30-50 days after flowering.
Medicinal Properties and Uses of Curry plant
Curry plant has been used in folk medicine for its numerous properties. These properties are primarily concentrated in the inflorescences, which should be harvested before complete flowering. Valuable essential oil is also extracted from Helichrysum Italicum flowers. The primary action of curry plant is its antioxidant effect due to the high content of polyphenols, flavonoids, and coumarins. These substances protect against free radicals like ROS. Other medicinal properties include:
- Antiallergic with antihistamine action
- Expectorant with balsamic action
- Antibacterial and antifungal
Due to these properties, curry plant is used to naturally treat:
- Asthmatic bronchitis
- Respiratory system disorders
- Dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema
- Post-phlebitic edema
- Hepatic insufficiencies and congestions
- As a fungistatic, for instance, against Candida
- As a natural diuretic
Dried curry plant inflorescences can be used for infusions and herbal teas and syrups. These are helpful for respiratory and hepatic issues and as compresses in cases of ocular inflammations. Curry plant essential oil is used externally and is excellent for connective tissue inflammation and rheumatic pains. It’s commonly found in specialized ointments, such as this one. In herbalism, curry plant is commonly used as an ingredient for formulating natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic products.
Aside from its phytotherapeutic uses, Helichrysum Italicum serves other purposes. In the culinary field, it’s used as a food flavoring, while its oleolite is used as a dietary supplement. Those interested in purchasing it can find it here. In ancient times, this plant had various uses in crafts; for instance, in Sicily, the vegetative parts were used for weaving. In cosmetics, curry plant is employed as a component in products for atonic skins. For ornamental purposes, due to its persistent yellow-gold color, it’s used as dried cut flowers in bunches or compositions.
Curry plant Cultivation
Curry plant can be cultivated in gardens and is ideal for flowerbeds, hedges, as well as the aforementioned uses.
Regarding environmental needs, it’s not highly frost-resistant, considering its natural habitat. Therefore, Helichrysum Italicum cultivation is recommended in Central-South areas and not in mountainous zones. Even here, during anomalous cold spells, protect them from frost when needed. Additionally, this plant has a high need for sunlight. In low-light conditions, its internodes elongate excessively, affecting blooming. Thus, it’s best to select a sunny location in the garden.
Propagation of curry plant primarily occurs through seeds, which should be collected at the end of summer and stored in a cool, dry place. Sowing takes place in spring, when a constant temperature of 20°C allows for optimal germination rates. It’s advisable to sow in small pots, later transplanting them into larger containers as the plant grows. From seed, planting in the ground can occur in the following spring. This means the plants can be kept in pots for the first year. September is also suitable for sowing, right after seed collection. In this case, extra care should be taken to protect the young plants during the first winter. Curry plant can also be propagated vegetatively in two ways: through cuttings and by dividing clumps.
Cuttings are taken from the top and should be about 4 cm long. Late winter is the best time for this procedure. Young cuttings should be kept in a protected place, such as a small balcony greenhouse. Rooting occurs at high percentages (up to 80%) within 30-40 days. Through clump division, done in spring, you have plants already equipped with a root system. This technique is recommended for those who already have plants in pots and want to multiply them. However, due to the ornamental uses of curry plant, many nurseries offer potted plants. Once purchased, these are easy to plant in the garden.
Soil, Irrigation, and Fertilization
Curry plant adapts well to poor soils. It prefers light soils, whether sandy or rocky, with excellent drainage and a slightly basic pH. On the contrary, it avoids clayey, asphyxiating, and swampy substrates that create water stagnation and limit root growth. Stagnation easily leads to root decay, representing the major problem in cultivation. Regarding water, as it naturally thrives in arid or semi-arid environments, it doesn’t require significant water inputs. In domestic cultivation, however, irrigation is necessary in the early growth stages and immediately after transplanting into the soil. For these reasons, curry plant is a plant that requires only emergency irrigations. Finally, concerning the need for nutrients, it prefers moderately fertile soils. Therefore, avoid heavy fertilization with manure or compost. At most, a limited amount of earthworm humus is advisable.