For all its good press, cilantro can be tricky to use. A little enhances the flavors of other foods like peppers, yogurt, onions and tomatoes. Too much and all you can taste is cilantro -- which can ruin a dish fast. Another potential problem is that according to published reports by Charles J. Wysocki, a biologist and psychologist with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, some folks are genetically predisposed to dislike this little herb. That makes it a love it or hate it proposition for many.
The solution may be to use a little as a seasoning and offer more on the side as a garnish for cilantro lovers. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. First, let's take a look at cilantro in the garden.
Thought to be native to Italy, cilantro is an annual that matures rapidly (about 45 days to seed production). Sow seeds directly in the garden about 15 inches apart after the last threat of frost has passed for your area. Unlike some herbs, cilantro enjoys rich soil that's predominantly moist and drains well. Give it a deep hole, about 14 inches, because it has a long taproot. Provide neutral soil and a couple of scoops of sand, too. For added protection, include a layer of mulch.
Although cilantro likes good light, provide afternoon shade in areas where summer heat is a problem. One option is to locate it under larger plants that can provide some dappled light. Cilantro grows to a height of around 30 inches, with a span of 8 to 10 inches. It tends to be unruly -- which is the opposite of manicured. It is a lush green with attractive notched leaves, though.
The problem with cilantro isn't about getting it started in the garden. It's about keeping it viable. Here's how it works: Cilantro is a "fast Eddie" kind of plant. Seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days, and after that it puts on growth quickly, leafing out well and without much added fuss besides regular watering.
Problems start when the days get longer, brighter and warmer, though. This is cilantro's cue to stop leafing and start blooming. That's a bad thing if you're interested in harvesting leaves. Blooming triggers the plant to devote almost all of its energy to developing flowers and seeds for the next generation.
This is called "bolting," and it's the most frustrating thing about growing some herbs. The two biggest "bolters" are cilantro and dill. There are some measures you can take to prolong a plant's leaf growing phase. I talk about them in my post: How to Keep Herbs from Bolting. It's a quick read and has some trick you may not have tried.
Cilantro and Bolting
Aggressive harvesting helps delay bolting in cilantro. It effectively turns the clock back, telling the plant it hasn't produced enough leaves yet. Start harvesting when the plant reaches six inches or so, and keep harvesting regularly. Don't just chop off the tops, though. Instead, thin the plant all along the stem. This will help increase air flow and reduce problems later. These measures only delay the inevitable by a couple of weeks, though. A more long range option involves successive plantings. Stagger seed starts every couple of weeks, and you'll have a series of young plants in leaf production mode throughout the summer. Using this method, it's a good idea to start subsequent generations indoors and move them outside in stages as they mature.
You might also want to try one of the newer cilantro cultivars reputed to be somewhat less inclined to bolting. One popular option is "Jantar." In tests reported by the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), Jantar extended the useful life of commercially grown cilantro by about 10 days.
Unlike some herbs, cilantro loses much of its flavor soon after drying. There are some ways around this: Instead of drying your harvest, freeze it instead. You can also use fresh cilantro to make flavored oil or vinegar for use during the fall and winter months. A third option is to grow cilantro indoors during the off-season. I have more information about growing cilantro in a pot here: Growing Cilantro in Containers
Cilantro Pest and Disease Problems
You've tasted and taken a whiff of cilantro I'm sure, so you know it has a strong flavor and aroma. Bugs don't care for it much. They tend to give it a wide berth. This makes cilantro a good choice for companion planting because it extends its aromatic protection to other inhabitants in your herb or vegetable patch. You may experience problems with aphids or possibly whitefly, but in the years I grown cilantro, I can only remember one occasion where pests were a big problem and that was during an extremely wet season. Powdery mildew can attack cilantro, so prefer watering your herb garden in the morning rather than in the evening -- and space (and prune) plants so they have good airflow.
Medicinal Coriander (cilantro seed)
Even though coriander is a popular culinary herb, it does have medicinal applications. In some areas of the world, it's common to use coriander as a treatment for indigestion. It's also sometimes used for the following conditions, although there is no solid research in place as of this writing to substantiate or refute claims that's it's an effective treatment:
- Bacterial infection
- Fungal infection
- Hernia pain
- Joint pain
- Stomach upset
Generally considered safe, coriander use may still be contraindicated in medicinal concentrations in some circumstances. When applied topically, it can cause skin reactions (irritation, inflammation). When ingested, it may cause increased sensitivity to sunlight and allergic reactions as well.
|Coriander (cilantro seed)|
Fun Facts About Cilantro
- Butterflies love cilantro.
- The compound dodecenal found in cilantro is very effective at killing salmonella and other types of foodborne bacteria.
- Cilantro is also known by the name Chinese parsley.
- Food historians have found evidence of cilantro cultivation as far back as 950 B.C.
- Coriander is used in the perfumery industry -- usually blended with dozens of other scents.
- One of the keys to authentic tasting regional cuisine is using the right herbs. Although many recipes suggest parsley as an alternative to cilantro, there's no comparison. Use the real deal if you can. (Just my two cents worth.)
Mcgee, Harold. "Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault ." The New York Times. 8/2010.
University of Massachusetts - Amherst. "Cilantro." http://extension.umass.edu/vegetable/ethnic-crops/cilantro-coentro-coriandrum-sativum
Utah State University. "Cilantro." http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/FN_Food$ense_2011-11pr.pdf
WebMd. "Coriander." http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-117-CORIANDER.aspx?activeIngredientId=117&activeIngredientName=CORIANDER
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