While visiting my favorite Mexican restaurant recently, I stopped by the front door to admire the garden the cook and his friend had planted. I saw tomatillos and peppers and one of my favorite herbs, cilantro. It reminded me how much I love this plant. And it also reminded me of how frustrating and fun it can be to grow all at the same time.
Cilantro – The Herb
Cilantro, also called ‘Chinese parsley’, is very popular in Latin American and Asian cooking. As you can see from the photo, the leaves really do look like parsley but the flavor is very different. Some people love the citrusy flavor that cilantro adds to dishes, while other find the taste ‘soapy’ and don’t like it at all. I personally enjoy the flavor and love to add it to homemade salsa or as a garnish for chili or tacos.
The Problem with Growing Cilantro
The problem with cilantro is that in hot weather, it ‘bolts’. Cilantro prefers cool moist weather. And, like any plant, its job is to reproduce. Since it will die in hot weather, when it gets hot, cilantro goes into survival mode and produces lots of flowers and then seeds. This is called ‘bolting.’ Once it bolts, the leaves rapidly lose their flavor, so cutting off the flowers does no good. And this is usually the point where many herb growers give up and stop paying attention to cilantro.
If you just can’t get enough cilantro and live in an area that gets hot, dry weather, there are a few things you can do to keep cilantro available. First, plant varieties that are slow-bolt as they are more tolerant of hot weather. Second, plant in succession – plant seeds every two weeks so that when one group begins to bolt another will still be growing. And finally, if you live where in an area that does get cool, moist weather, plant cilantro during those cooler seasons – spring, early summer and early fall.
Embrace the Seeds
When your cilantro does bolt (and it will), don’t despair or give up, because this plant has a lot more to offer. Let the seeds mature on the plant and allow some to self-seed in your garden. (The cilantro growing this year in the garden at the Mexican restaurant all came from seeds from last year).
Then, harvest the rest of the seeds. These are the spice known as coriander. And it tastes completely different from cilantro.
I remember my dad making his own sausage when I was a kid and testing the mix of spices that he used. One of those was coriander. This spice adds a warm and toasty flavor to fall and winter dishes. I use a mortar and pestle to grind it before adding it to soups and stews.
So while cilantro may be frustrating to grow depending on your climate, this plant does have so much to give by providing us with an herb and a spice.
Happy Gardening and Harvesting.