Leafy green cilantro is really two herbs in one. Its aromatic seeds, called coriander, are used in candy and pastries. Its tangy foliage, known as cilantro (or Chinese parsley), is a staple in Spanish, Asian, and other international cuisines. Surprisingly, the flavor of the seeds differs from the flavor of the foliage. Coriander seeds are fragrant while cilantro leaves are pungent.
In the Landscape
Cilantro is a cool-weather annual that grows 2 to 3 feet tall in spring or fall. A delicate plant with lacy leaves, it bears white or pinkish blossoms when the weather gets warm. Use cilantro as a back-of-the-border plant, or plant it in a bed devoted to annuals, such as dill, where it can reseed.
Planting and Care
Grow cilantro in full sun and well-drained soil with a pH of 6.6; it will tolerate light shade in the lower South.
Fall is the best time to plant cilantro in Zones 8, 9, and 10, where it rarely freezes enough to kill the plant. Cilantro seedlings are evergreen in winter throughout most of the South. If you live north of Zone 6, plant it in the spring after danger of frost is past.
Because it has delicate roots, cilantro is difficult to transplant. For best results, plant it during cool, moist weather. It is best to sow the seeds where they are to grow. Keep the seeds moist until germination. When the seedlings are 3 inches tall, you will need to thin them to 10 inches apart.
Once the plant blooms, foliage becomes scarce, so for a steady supply of fresh foliage, make successive sowings every three to four weeks through fall. Fertilize with a balanced liquid fertilizer after heavy harvesting.
The flowers eventually turn into light brown fruit with an edible inner seed. While the fresh seeds and foliage have a pungent odor, the ripe seeds become more fragrant as they dry. Cilantro reseeds and returns the following year.
Species and Selections
There are several different selections of this herb, some better for foliage than for seeds. The selections Slow-Bolting and Long Standing resist going to seed and produce a good crop of leaves over a long period.
Harvest, Storage, and Use
You can harvest cilantro's foliage continually in the cooler months of spring and fall and through winter in the lower and Gulf South. The larger lower leaves are less pungent than the fernlike upper leaves. Be careful not to cut more than one-third of the leaves at a time, or you may weaken the plant.
Use chopped fresh foliage in black beans, salsas, stir-fries, and Mexican dishes. You may want to use the carrotlike root in Asian dishes as it has a more intense flavor than the leaves. Add leaves at the last minute for maximum seasoning, but remember that cilantro easily dominates, so use it sparingly. It marries well with chives, cumin, garlic, marjoram, mint, and peppers. Use the fragrant flowers in floral or herb arrangements. To preserve cilantro leaves for future use, freeze them in water or oil; they lose most of their flavor when dried.
Harvest the seedheads as soon as they ripen, or the weak stems will bend and the seeds will drop. (If you want cilantro to self-sow for next year's crop, leave a few seedheads standing in the garden.) Clip the seedhead halfway down the stem, and place it in a paper bag or basket. Put the bag in a well-ventilated spot. In five to six days, the dry husks will split into two halves, allowing the seeds inside to fall out.
Store coriander seeds in the refrigerator. Add a dash to sautéed fresh mushrooms, or use in relishes, pickles, or Indian dishes.
Cilantro occasionally has problems with aphids, mildew, whiteflies, and wilt. To prevent or control mildew and wilt, remove spent cilantro plants at the end of the season.