Cilantro/Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Chinese Parsley, Mexican Parsley, Dhania
About This Plant
This herbaceous plant, grown as an annual or as a biannual depending on climate, has at least two different names–Cilantro when referring to the leaves or vegetative stage of growth, and Coriander when referring to the seeds, or mature form of the plant. The leaves taste very different from the seeds. The leaves taste similar to parsley, but juicier, with a hint of citrus while the seeds have a pungent, warm, nutty, lemony taste. The plant grows about one to two feet high and 12-18” wide.
Cilantro is a cool-weather herb but is still frost-sensitive. It is considered hardy in USDA Zones 2-11. It grows fast in the cool weather of Spring and Fall, growing a rosette of lacy leaves. The plant abounds in hot countries and cuisines, yet it does not like hot weather. Anything hotter than 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the plant bolts and sets its seed. As the weather warms, it sends up a long, lanky flower stalk with a cluster of white or pinkish blossoms that later produces Coriander seeds. Cilantro is self-sowing. Its seed pods burst open readily allowing the seeds to fall to the ground, germinating into new plants. Cilantro moves through its life cycle quickly, especially in Spring. Once you understand this, it is much easier to grow and work with.
Cilantro is a member of the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family. Cilantro’s leaves are variable in shape, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and slender and feathery higher up on the flowering stems. The original leaves that grow during the vegetative stage are preferable in flavor to the feathery, secondary leaves that occur in the plant’s later growth stage which have a tendency to be bitter. Fresh leaves are an ingredient in many foods such as chutneys, salads, salsa, guacamole, and as a widely used garnish for soup, fish, and meat.
When the plant enters its second growth stage, a thick, purplish stalk shoots up while the leaves become feathery and fern-like. Cutting the stalk back only makes it push harder. The plant naturally flowers from July to August. The flowers occur in small umbels and are white or very pale pink. The flowers are asymmetrical with the petals that point away from the center of the umbel are longer than those pointing toward it. The flowers grow have five petals and five stamens. The fruits are commonly referred to as seeds. They are round and dull yellow or tan in color, measuring 2-6 mm.
Coriander has been used as a flavoring and medicine for over 3,000 years. Its use has been well-documented through the ages, from ancient Sanskrit texts discussing Coriander’s cultivation in ancient India nearly 7,000 years ago, to the Ebers Papyrus, and even in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, where its seed was likened to the manna provided by God. The oldest Coriander ever found was discovered in the Nahal Hemar cave in Israel dating back over 8,000 years. Coriander was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. In the Middle Ages, Coriander seeds were a common ingredient in love potions. Coriander was an official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1980. Coriander was historically used to preserve meat and was often combined with vinegar for that purpose. Corned beef is a popular example of Coriander-spiced meat. Seeds were often a common ingredient in Belgian beers and are used in distilling spirits, such as the French Chartreuse. More than 900,000 pounds of Coriander are consumed every year in the U.S. in sausages, pastries, sweets, and more.
One of the keys to having Cilantro available all summer long (including when your tomatoes and chilis are ready to harvest) is to plant successive plantings every four weeks. Cilantro does best grown from seed directly planted where they are to grow. If you want to get an early start, however, you can start your first set of seeds indoors, typically in February. Plant seeds ½” deep. Germination takes 7-10 days. In USDA Zones 8-10, Fall is the ideal time to plant because the plants will last through Winter until the weather heats up in the late Spring.
If started indoors, transplant Cilantro outside four weeks after sowing. It is quite a sensitive plant and transplanting can shock them, causing them to bolt, so transplant carefully. Space plants 8-10” apart.
When grown in full sun, Coriander will make the highest level of the aromatic oils that give them their taste and aroma. As explained above, Cilantro has a proclivity to bolt. It flourishes with cool nights and sunny days, such as those found in Autumn. The plant is productive for only about six weeks in cooler climates, so here are some tips to help you get the most out of it.
Dedicate a patch of your garden to Cilantro, where it can self-sow. If your self-seeding patch is thin or hasn’t fully established yet, direct sow seeds every two to three weeks, starting about two weeks before the last frost date. Mulching Cilantro’s roots will help keep it cool and delay bolting. Once temperatures hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit for a few consecutive days, the plants will bolt. Once the plants bolt, allow them to go to seed.
Cilantro likes well-drained soil. Allow the soil to go almost dry between waterings and then soak thoroughly. Cilantro grows well in pots, window boxes, and hanging baskets. It pairs well with dill, chives, and rosemary in the same container. If growing in a container, the container should be 8-12” wide and 6” inches deep. Shocks to the plant, such as swings in temperature or lack of water can cause the plant to bolt. Bolting and setting seeds is the plants’ survival technique. Try to minimize stresses to the plant.
Coriander repels insects such as aphids, spider mites, and potato beetles. It partners well with Anise, Caraway, Potatoes, and Dill. It is said to benefit Spinach when it is planted nearby and is helped by beans and peas when planted nearby. It should not be planted near Fennel as it is bad for both plants.
Leaves will be ready for harvest after about 47 days. The young green leaves can be harvested sparingly once the seedlings are six inches tall. Outside stems can be cut first, working your way inward. Avoid harvesting more than a third of the plant at any one time. Harvest during the early morning or late in the evening. Fresh Cilantro does not keep long. Dried Cilantro is rather flavorless. The leaves do not freeze either. The best way to keep them for Winter use is in oil or vinegar. Coriander seed will be ready for harvest close to three months after planting. The seed will have a very strong odor at first that will soften and become more lemony once the seed is thoroughly dry.
Coriander seeds are ready to harvest when they begin to turn brown. When the seeds are too ripe, they shatter and disperse themselves. When they are underripe, they have an unpleasant flavor. Maturation is a process and a general rule of thumb is you should harvest when between half to ⅔ of the seeds are ripe. You may want to cut off the seed stalks and take them indoors to ripen in order to harvest as many seeds as possible. You can tie bunches of six stalks together, tie a paper bag over the heads and hang it upside down in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place. Leave it for about two weeks. The seeds should fall off their stems when shaken. Store the seeds in an airtight container.
- Potpourri – add a few seeds to rose petals, rosemary, lavender and other scented herbs
- Seeds can be used to make a pest-deterrent spray for spider mites
A majority of people perceive the taste of Cilantro leaves as a tart, lemon/lime taste, but to nearly 25% of the population, Cilantro tastes more like dish soap! This “dish soap” perception of the flavor is linked to a gene that detects some specific aldehydes in Cilantro that are also used as odorant substances in many soaps and detergents. That caveat aside, when we talk about the culinary uses of this plant, we have to talk about two separate things: Cilantro and Coriander.
Coriander is the seed portion of the plant which looks like tiny round balls. Fresh Coriander is an openly aromatic spice–a cross between regular dried Coriander seed and green Peppercorn. It can be described as a lemony citrus flavor when crushed, or a warm, nutty, spicy, orange-flavored taste. Coriander is used whole or ground as a flavoring for food and as a seasoning. It is used in curries, curry powder, pickles, sausages, soups, stews, and more. It can even be used as an interesting addition to ice cream recipes. During WWII, Coriander seeds were covered in sugar and sold as candy.
Coriander is said to fix a lot of errors in cooking–such as if you add too much of some spice, you can add an equal amount of ground Coriander seed to correct it. Seeds should be stored whole and ground just before use. Whole seeds are often roasted before grinding. Roasting or heating the seeds in a dry pan heightens the flavor, aroma, and pungency. Coriander is often used with Cumin and is widely used in the process of pickling vegetables. Coriander is also listed as one of the original ingredients in the secret formula or Coca-Cola. Seeds can be sprinkled over salads, poached salmon, or grilled fish. Seeds can also be added to homemade chicken or beef stock.
Cilantro, on the other hand, refers to the leafy green portion of the plant. The fresh leaves are an ingredient in many South Asian foods, particularly chutneys, in Chinese and Mexican dishes, particularly in salsa and guacamole, and as a garnish. Chopped Cilantro is a garnish on cooked dishes such as dal and curries. Heat diminished its flavor quickly, so the leaves are usually used raw or added to a dish immediately before serving. Cilantro gives a refreshing flavor that balances the fiery Chilis, Garlic, and spices that flavor Mexican, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Indian foods.
The root of the plant can also be cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The roots have a deeper, more intense flavor than the leaves and are used in a variety of Asian cuisines, especially in Thai dishes such as soups or curry pastes.
The dainty white flowers can also be used as an edible garnish for salads and sorbets.
While Cilantro leaves are aromatic and cooling in nature, the Coriander seeds are what have commonly been used as the medicinal portion of the plant. Coriander seeds have a pungent flavor that is warming, drying, and aromatic. Coriander is best known as a carminative herb and is a perfect match for damp and cold digestive problems. They have traditionally been used for all kinds of digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, belching, hiccups, diarrhea, indigestion, and modulating blood sugar in addition to assisting with UTIs, high blood pressure, and optimizing cholesterol levels. Coriander has shown promising results in studies for its ability to prevent colon cancer.
Coriander is an important corrigent herb. Corrigent herbs are added in small amounts to formulas to help balance them. It is also often added to bitter formulas to improve the taste.
Coriander can be ground into a paste and used externally as a poultice or as a compress for menstrual cramps, arthritic joints, and headaches. Seeds can be made into tea. A cold infusion is recommended or if making a hot infusion, cover it immediately. Coriander is considered safe for most people. A small number of people are severely allergic to Coriander. Those who are on blood sugar-regulating medication should monitor their levels regularly if taking Coriander.
Coriander seeds are reported to have a narcotic effect when consumed in large quantities. During the Renaissance, Coriander was thought of as an aphrodisiac and added to love potions mixed with wine.
Cilantro is native to the Mediterranean region, spanning from southern Europe and Northern Africa to southwestern Asia.