Summer means guacamole season, and what’s guacamole without cilantro? This herb is easy to grow, but it does tend to go to seed quickly in the summer heat. The solution is to keep planting it in waves.
Before we get into how to grow it, though, we need to address one unavoidable fact: some people hate cilantro. They don’t just dislike it, the way someone might say they don’t care for mushrooms or onions or arugula. They have a visceral reaction to it and honestly can’t understand how anybody can stand to eat it. Usually they complain that it tastes like soap.
It turns out there is actually a genetic reason for that: cilantro haters have a particular clustering of olfactory sensors that let them pick out a specific group of chemicals in cilantro leaves. They perceive those chemicals as having a soapy aroma — cilantro really does smell and taste different to them than it does to others.
For those of us without a cilantro aversion, the herb is a multifaceted delight. The flavour and aroma have elements of lemon, parsley, and mild green onions, but it’s most often described as tasting “fresh” and “green.”
Cilantro or coriander?
You’ll sometimes hear the words “cilantro” and “coriander” used interchangeably. In some cultures, the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are both called “coriander,” while other cooks call the fresh greens “cilantro” and the dried seeds “coriander.”
In the kitchen, we prefer two use the two different names, because the fresh leaves and the dry seeds really do have very different flavours. Coriander seed is typically toasted and ground, and has a dark, earthy aroma akin to fennel and cumin. When cooking, fresh cilantro and dried coriander are not interchangeable.
Whatever you call it, cilantro is extremely easy to grow. Although it’s a tropical herb, it can be started in the garden quite early — around the last frost date, or even a bit earlier. Cilantro grows extremely quickly, so if we do get a late frost that kills off your baby seedlings, it’s an easy matter to just plant more.
You can put the seeds in rows if you wish, but cilantro is often just grown in a patch, seeds scattered about two or three inches apart and covered with a quarter inch of soil. This plant doesn’t mind being densely planted — in fact, an abundance of plants will help keep the roots cool and delay bolting.
The ideal location is sunny, but not too hot. That’s because heat triggers cilantro to stop forming leaves and instead start forming seeds (which is known as bolting). You can’t prevent this from happening — even in ideal conditions, cilantro plants will bolt within six to eight weeks of planting — but the longer you can delay bolting, the longer you can harvest the leaves.
You can start pinching off leaves as soon as the plants are a few inches tall. This will encourage the plants to grow more leafy and lush rather than forming long stems. Keep the plants well-watered, but not soggy.
Because cilantro will inevitably bolt, it’s worth planting a new crop every four weeks or so. Our summers in Muskoka can be highly variable — if we have a few weeks of extremely hot weather, plants that are maturing at that time will bolt quite quickly, so you may get less cilantro in July than you did in June or than you will in August or September. If we have a cooler summer, then you’ll be harvesting cilantro all summer long.
As the plants set seed, you have a choice. You can pull them out to make room for more plants, or you can leave them to mature. The seeds themselves can be harvested and used as culinary coriander — you can toast them in a dry frying pan, or try pickling them for a different flavour entirely. Or you can just leave them to drop to the ground — cilantro self-seeds quite well, so you’ll be rewarded with a fresh crop of cilantro seedlings coming up next spring, ready to enjoy again!
Cilantro is an essential part of many cuisines, including Mexican. Nothing is as fast and simple as this five-ingredient guacamole:
- One ripe avocado
- ½ diced fresh tomato
- Juice of half a lime
- A few stalks of fresh cilantro
- Salt to taste
Mash the avocado. Strip the cilantro leaves from the stems and dice. Combine all ingredients and serve.
Image by F. Delventhal