When I first started gardening, I avoided cilantro. I'd never cooked with it much. Word on the street was that it was hard to grow -- finicky, quick to bolt, and prone to bitterness if not picked at just the right time.
Oh, how wrong a reputation can be.
Cilantro, also known as coriander or Chinese parsley, has become one of my favorite culinary herbs -- and one my best teachers in the art of gardening in a way that could actually feed us, and feed us well, if it ever needed to.
Cilantro currently grows wild across southern Europe, North Africa and southwestern Asia. Its original range was likely centered in southern Europe, where the Greeks were cultivating coriander as food and medicine at least four thousand years ago, and from there spread across the continent via trade routes. Cilantro's use goes back further than that, though. Coriander seeds have been found in Neolithic sites in the Middle East, in Tutankhamen's tomb, and early Bronze age sites in Macedonia.
While Americans often associate cilantro with Mexican cuisine, it wasn't actually present in the Americas until it arrived with the Spanish in the 1600's. Once there, it took quickly to the climate and became integrated into local foods. One of the keys to bringing cilantro into the home garden is to understand that like many traditional plants (and unlike the mono-crops of the modern world), every part of the cilantro plant - root, leaves, stems, and seeds - is edible and nourishing. Each also has a slightly different flavor and culinary use, and each matures at a different pace, providing a versatile harvest that mirrors the seasons:
- Cilantro typically refers to the stems and leaves, eaten fresh or cooked.
- Coriander refers to the dried seeds, used to flavor soups, stews, and other dishes.
- The roots, virtually ignored in the west, have no English name, but are known in Thai cuisine as Raak pak chee and used in that country's distinctive curry paste. I just call them cilantro roots, and put them into all sorts of cooked dishes that can benefit from their delicate, earthy flavor.
- Cilantro flowers are edible, and make a nice addition to fresh salads - but I prefer to leave them to their important job of transforming into a small mountain of coriander seeds.
The seeds -- coriander.
The leaves -- cilantro.
The roots. Nameless and delicious.
Supermarkets in the U.S. tend to offer only one, familiar phase of a given plant's growth, no matter what the season -- but in the garden, the young-leaf stage of cilantro that you find in bunches in the supermarket is a relatively brief one. Don't worry, though. In return for giving up the idea that you should be able to munch on late-spring leaves at 2:00am during a snowstorm in January, you'll gain a whole wealth of tastes that the average supermarket shopper doesn't even have a chance to realize exist.
Health Benefits: Like most herbs and spices, the health benefits attributed to cilantro and coriander range from accurate to a bit on the silly side. Organicfact.net has a good summary of them here; a good book on herbalism will tell you even more.
Nutritional Benefits: Different parts of the cilantro plant have very different nutritional profiles. Fresh cilantro leaves deliver a good punch of vitamin K, and smaller amounts of vitamins A, C, and potassium. Coriander seed contains no vitamin K, but does have useful amounts of all the basic minerals, including calcium, iron, and magnesium. The roots are a nutritional enigma: Like so many ethnic and traditional foods, the USDA doesn't bother to provide nutritional information on its official list. You can find full nutritional information for thirty gazillion kinds of soda, though, and for everything on the McDonald's menu. Just in case you were wondering.
In the Garden: I've found that cilantro is best sowed successively - which means that instead of planting a whole bed all at once, you plant just a bit every week or so, so that you have some just reaching its flavor peak when you've finished harvesting the previous row - but you'll want to leave a few of the best plants in each row alone, to give you that marvelous coriander seed. At the same time, you'll be selecting for local hardiness. A win-win.
Early spring: Planting. As soon as the soil can be worked, put in your first row of cilantro seed. Don't worry about spacing. You'll be thinning the seedlings out, and enjoying that first harvest soon. Put in a second row once the first row is showing some growth.
Spring: Planting and harvesting leaves. Somewhere in mid-spring, your first row of cilantro will have a couple of sets of delicate leaves per sprouted seed. It's time to thin them down to about a 2-inch spacing, leaving the healthiest ones in the ground to continue to grow. I don't do this all at once. Rather, I thin a couple a day to stick in salad, or eggs, or soup, or marinade, or whatever else we're having to eat that day. Don't forget to put in a third row, when that second one has had a good start!
Early Summer: Planting and harvesting leaves and roots. By early summer you'll have thinned your way through plantings #1, #2, and maybe even #3, depending on your zone. The oldest plants will have begun to bolt -- to send up a thick central stalk that, left alone, will create a spray of delicate white flowers. Leave them alone. You want those flowers. Keep succession-planting and munching on thinnings from the plants that haven't gotten old enough to bolt yet. Don't forget to harvest that root! The best roots will come from plants that are well-grown, just starting to bolt, but not quite gone. If you're going to want cilantro in quantity for salsa when the tomatoes peak later in the summer, now's the time to plant a dedicated row.
Midsummer: Time for a break. Cilantro loves hot weather, and will quickly and enthusiastically bolt in summer heat, even as very young plants. You could keep some successive plantings going and get some yield, but by this point I usually just let the patch do its thing. There's so much else to eat in a midsummer garden -- herbs, green beans, squash, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers -- that it just makes sense to move on for a while. The earliest plants will be setting plump little seed berries and the younger ones flowering, and the combined effect is quite beautiful. If some of the plants are top-heavy, help them out with a convenient stake to lean on. If you did put in a patch for salsa in early summer, it should be at just the age for harvesting right about now.
Flowers and green coriander berries in mid-July. Pretty, aren't they?
The pollinators love them, too.
Late Summer: Seed harvest. By now your earliest cilantro plants will have begun to die back, and the coriander seed to dry. If you're feeling industrious, you could plant a few last rows for an autumn leaf crop.
A bucket of harvested cilantro plants, waiting for someone to get bored in the evening and shake off the seeds.
Autumn: Harvesting leaves and roots, seed harvest. Cilantro is surprisingly frost-hardy, so its growing season will continue till the first hard freeze. You'll want to bring in any still-green bunches of berries before then, and hang them to finish drying somewhere indoors.
- Winter: Sleepytime in the garden. During these cold months, cilantro hibernates as a little pile of seed tucked away with your gardening supplies, ready to refurnish the garden in the spring. In the kitchen, seed not set aside for next year's plantings can lend its rich flavor to winter soups and stews.
(This timeline changes if you're the sort who uses a freezer -- both the leaves and roots freeze well -- but I'm not big on freezing as a way of preserving food. There's plenty to eat without resorting to it, and the carbon footprint that freezer takes just seems to negate the whole point of saving my own food in the first place.)
The Rules of Blogging dictate that I insert a perfectly composed photo of some mouth-watering coriander dish at this point in the post. But it's a Wednesday morning, and steaming dishes of homemade cilantro-coriander curry draped artfully over rice are in short supply. Here's a mesmerizing snap of the stock-pot that's on the back of the stove, instead. There's coriander in there, honest. And it's darn tasty.
Where to Start:
Growing cilantro starts the way all garden endeavors do -- with some seed. Here's how to get some:
Free Sources of Seed: Seed swapping is a bit like trading baseball cards, only, with seeds -- you compare stashes with other people, and offer like-valued swaps of stuff you have that they want, for stuff they have that you want. It's a great way to get hold of open-pollinated garden seed, as well as unique and unusual varieties not carried by the major seed companies. Check myFolia, a free seed-swapping website. Or, you could just ask a gardening friend. Seed-saving gardeners are usually obliging in the way of seed sharing, too.
Don't Bother: For some plants, a source of seed is as close as the local supermarket. For example, if you want to grow potatoes, you can buy an organic potato, cut it into pieces, and plant each piece. Don't bother trying to grow coriander seed from the supermarket, though. Most whole spices in U.S. supermarkets have been radiated or chemically treated to prevent sprouting.
And there you have it.
Does growing cilantro have a place in your garden and kitchen?
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