Spotlight on Cilantro
Are you a fan of cilantro? Do you delight in salsas, curries and sauces that are shock full of this powerful aromatic herb? Perhaps you find its flavor off-putting, reminiscent of dish soap or rotten food?
Coriandrum Sativum, or more simply cilantro, also known as Chinese Parsley, it is a polarizing herb. About a quarter of people who taste it possess the gene that enable them to detect the presence of specific chemicals in it leaves that are also present in many soaps and detergents[i]. A funny, if not perplexing fact that might explain why my own mother always scrunched up her nose at the smell of cilantro and refused to plant it in her gardens!
Cilantro is one of the most widely eaten and cultivated herb on the planet. It is a dominant flavor in cuisine in countries as far and diverse as India, Thailand, China, Mexico, Morocco and many more grow. Perhaps the best thing about cilantro is that its seeds are known as the spice called coriander, which comes with its own flavor profile and usefulness in the kitchen. In fact, the entire plant is edible! The roots are also used in a variety of Thai dishes and curry pastes, appreciated for their deeper, more intense flavor.
An ancient herb, cilantro was first attested in English during the late 14th century. The word "coriander" derives from the Old French “coriandre”, which comes from Latin Coriandrum. Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, also deriving from Coriandrum. It is the common term in American English for coriander leaves, while the spice known as coriander refers to the plant’s dry seed pods.
Coriander grows wild over a wide area of Western Asia and Southern Europe and has been cultivated in Greece since at least the second millennium BC, both for its seeds and its leaves as an aromatic and a medicinal.
My 5 easy tips for growing great cilantro
Now that you know the fantastic and old history of cilantro, how can you grow it yourself? Well, first of all, cilantro is as amazing in the kitchen as it is easy to grow. The plants are tidy and easy to manage anywhere. You can grow cilantro in a pot on a sunny windowsill, in containers out on the patio or right into those garden beds. It really is that easy going! It's one of those first time gardener herbs that I always recommend to people, as it is almost fool-proof!
Cilantro is an annual plant, meaning it completes its entire life cycle in a short amount of time, usually around 70 days. The sprouts take 6-10 days to emerge from the ground and from there, the first leaf harvest can be expected in about 20-30 days. Coriander can be harvested from the mature plants in about 70 days, after the plants have begun to die off.
The blooms are dainty and unassuming, spread in tiny umbels that are wildly attractive to pollinators. Left alone until they dry naturally, the seeds can be harvested both for the table and for the next succession of planting. Cilantro does not experience inbreeding depression, so you can save your own seeds, season after season!
Did I also mention that cilantro is remarkable savvy? It doesn’t need much in terms of fertilizer. A good garden soil with moderate to low fertility is all it takes to make it happy, so you can use that freshly amended space for hungrier plants.
Tip #1 - Grow the right cilantro
Although many varieties of cilantro have been created over the years, I find that the classic Santo Cilantro is simply the best. The plants remain lovely and productive for a long time and the amount of coriander seeds they produce is large enough to warrant the trouble of harvesting. It’s also slow to bolt, even more so than some other varieties so-called slow bolting variety.
Another variety I love to grow, especially indoors on windowsills or out on my patio in containers is Dwarf Lemon Cilantro. The extra tiny plants have a compact growing habit, producing loads of tasty leaves while also showing some slow-bolting tendency. If you're short on growing space or want to grow cilantro indoors, give Dwarf Lemon Cilantro a try.
Wait, what? Only two varieties?? Aren't there hundreds out there, just waiting to be discovered?
Yes, yes there are, but sadly I don't see the point in listing more than those two. I delight in biodiversity while gardening and I love to try new things, but the truth is that different varieties of cilantro don't offer much variety at all. Apart from Dwarf Lemon Cilantro, there isn't much in flavor profile between the varieties and the ones that are marketed as slow bolting aren't that much more slow bolting when push comes to shove. Sometimes, simplicity really is the best choice.
Tip #2 - Keep it cool
Cilantro is a cool season annual and its seeds will germinate in soil temperatures of 55 to 68 degrees. It can tolerate temperatures as low as 10 degrees F, but if temperatures exceed 85 degrees F it will start to bolt.
This means that no matter what you do, if you daytime temperature reach a steady 80 degrees F, it will not produce any usable leaves.
You need to keep it cool, either by growing it in the part-shade of you patio, under the protection of taller, larger plants, or simply to forego growing it altogether once the temperatures are not favorable. I personally chose the simplest, most time and energy efficient option and don't grow it at all in July and August, instead focusing on its close cousin, the lesser known Culantro.
Tip #3 Keep it moist
While cilantro does not need ample fertility to produce its bounty, it is incredibly sensitive to drought. I always make sure to grow it in a substrate that retains plenty of moisture, especially when the weather starts to climb dangerously close to the higher limit to its comfort.
Amend your soil or container with compost or other moisture-retaining medium and plant your seeds one inch deep, then cover with soil and press gently on top to insure good soil contact. Keep evenly moist and protect it from drying out at all cost: the seedlings would not survive it.
Once the plant grows a bit more, it will tolerate a certain amount of dryness, but this is always at the risk of sending it to flower, which might not be a big deal if you want to add coriander to your pantry!
Tip #4 Succession plant
I like to plant my first succession of cilantro in the early spring, before the last frost date but after the arctic cold of winter has subsided. This first round of cilantro is started indoors, under grow lights to speed up germination and to nurture the tiny plants in their earliest stage. Here in Connecticut, this means about the first of March with a transplant outside in my garden beds about 4 weeks later, during the first week of April. At this stage, the plants are still young enough to handle the transplant process easily.
Around that same time, I direct sow my first succession of cilantro outdoors in my unprotected garden beds. Germination is a bit slow in the damp, cold weather, but the seedlings emerge in around 2 weeks without any problem.
I keep planting cilantro at about 2 weeks intervals around the garden beds, wherever I find a bit of empty space. The plants are small and do not consume much in terms of fertility, so finding space for them is easy.
I also like to plant cilantro in the spring as a companion plant to larger, slower to mature crops such as tomatoes and peppers. As the days grow longer and hotter, the larger plants provide beneficial shade to my dainty cilantro.
Tip #5 Make the most of each plant
I always allow my cilantro to go to seed. Coriander is a delightful spice and I would never go without it! I also love that I can simply wait until the seeds dry, harvest them, then immediately replant them somewhere else for another succession of cilantro!
Cilantro is also fantastic as microgreen and the fresh, uncooked sprout make superb garnish for winter soups and stew when I'm hungry for fresh, tender greens or during the blazing heat of August when I can't grow it outside. This alone might be reason enough to harvest all the coriander seeds you can from your own supply! I use a simple tray and some coconut choir to sprout the seeds on a windowsill, then use kitchen sheers to harvest the microgreens. My children go crazy for it!
As the season ends, I plant my last succession in September, and I make sure it is a large one. Fall is the absolute best season for growing cilantro and I protect mine under a simple low tunnel. This light protection has seen my plants grow all the way to the next Spring if I'm lucky and the winter is milder. Even if it doesn’t survive, I am still provided with a generous amount of fresh herb right around the corner of Winter.
I could not ask for more!
Want to grow your own cilantro? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
[i] Eriksson, N.; Wu, S.; Do, C.B. (29 November 2012). "A genetic variant near olfactory receptor genes influences cilantro preference". Flavour. doi:10.1186/2044-7248-1-22. Retrieved 12 May 2022.