Cilantro, Culantro, Papalo
One of the great characteristics of herbs is that they are so easy to grow. But there is one herb that I have a difficult time with and that's Coriandrum sativum. You may know it by the common names coriander or cilantro. If the plant is grown for the seeds it is called coriander; the leaves are referred to as cilantro. Perhaps it is the multiple names that makes this herb so complicated.
Unfortunately cilantro has me in a difficult spot because I love the flavor so much. I like to have plenty on hand to brighten soups, salads and salsas.
When it comes to growing cilantro I have 2 issues. For one thing it has an extremely short life span. When purchased as a plant at the nursery it often peters out within a few weeks.
Another problem I have is humidity and heat. Cilantro prefers a cool, dry climate, conditions that are sadly lacking in my mid-south garden during summer. Similar to lettuce, cilantro will bolt and become bitter as soon as temperatures begin to rise.
I have better luck growing cilantro during the extended mild weather typical of fall in my region. So just before the heat breaks in late summer I sow seeds for autumn harvest.
There are a few tips to keep in mind when growing cilantro from seed. First, the seedlings don't transplant well so it is best to direct sow them in the garden or a generous sized container. Pick a location that is in full sun with well-drained soil.
Cilantro seedlings also resent being crowded so thin them to 3 to 4 inches apart.
And finally consistent moisture is a must as the seedlings emerge.
I find that if I sow a crop at the end of August and then again 2 weeks later I have plenty of this flavorful herb to last me until the first hard freeze.
This year I decided to expand my repertoire and try some of the alternatives to cilantro. I'm growing papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) and culantro (Eryngium foetidum). Both have a similar flavor to cilantro, but are better suited to my garden's climate.
Papalo is a native plant from South and Central America. I sowed a few seeds directly in the vegetable garden in early summer and they have grown quite well. Tall and spindly, the plant is not especially attractive. However the leaves are a nice gray-green and a nearby Malabar spinach vine does a pretty good job filling in the gaps. I also like the flavor; it has a hint of lime in addition to the cilantro flavor.
Culantro is a cousin of the perennial sea holly - a plant I love for its metallic blue, spiky blooms. Culantro is native to South East Asia, Central America and Florida and it loves heat and humidity. It will thrive in shade to partial shade and moist soil. I sowed the seed in a container in spring and it is now about 6 to 8 inches tall. The foliage has the serrated edges typical of the eryngium family.
Neither papalo and culantro do well cooked so they should either be eaten raw or added to recipes are the very last minute.