By Lucinda Hutson
In marketplaces all over Mexico, vendors sell bunches of cilantro throughout the year, but most of it is trucked in from high-altitude regions, where cooler nights prolong the growing season. Cilantro just can’t bear the heat, which is frustrating because the plants usually have already flowered and gone to seed by the time such culinary companions as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, and chiles are ready to be harvested.
Don’t buy cilantro transplants during warm weather; you’ll just end up with stunted plants that quickly go to seed. That was my experience one warm April many years ago when I first planted cilantro. Dismayed by my inability to grow this herb, I relied for the rest of the summer on cilantro from the supermarket. Cilantro just seemed too temperamental.
That fall, however, with the return of cooler weather, I was surprised to see volunteer cilantro plants poking out of the ground in the spot where the purchased plants had stood. Soon, delicate stems with finely scalloped, glossy leaves resembling Italian parsley occupied the area. Harvesting long-stemmed bunches to use in the kitchen just encouraged further growth. A few brief freezes damaged the leaves only slightly; after a few sunny days, the cilantro flourished once again, providing lush growth and continuing harvests for nearly two months. Choosing cultivars such as ‘Jantar’ or ‘Santo’ (also called ‘Slow Bolt’ or ‘Long Standing’) instead of the species is another way of extending leaf production by several weeks.
Warm weather signals cilantro to flower, set seed, and die. Thick purplish flower stalks shoot up about 3 feet, bearing foliage that is more finely divided and fernlike. Umbels of snowy white (or pale lavender) edible flowers delight the bees and add a lacy look to the garden. The shiny green fruits then appear.
Coriander seeds range in diameter from 1/16 to 1/4 inch at their plumpest. When you want to grow plants especially for the seeds, sow the larger ones. The smaller seeds seem to produce leafier plants. The seeds mature about three months after sowing. Harvest them just as they begin to turn brown and spread them out to dry. After removing any bits of stalk, store the seeds in an airtight container.
Here in Texas, I make small sowings of cilantro every few weeks from September through February or March. Gardeners in cooler climates can start sowing seeds in midspring. Because germination is fairly low and slow, and because I know that cilantro doesn’t try to take over my garden, I sow more seed than I think I’ll need. Some gardeners scratch the seed coating or soak the seeds to aid germination.
Sometimes I sow the seeds about 1/2 inch deep in orderly rows, then thin the seedlings to about 12 inches apart, but more often, I simply scatter seeds and let nature take its course. Some plants flourish in my vegetable garden while others thrive among the flowers and herbs in other parts of the yard.
Cilantro appreciates a rich, well-drained humus soil in full sun. I topdress the plants with a light application of compost. Adequate watering is imperative. Established plants require little attention. The foliage does not seem to attract insect pests, but bees and other pollinators readily visit the flowers. I apply fish emulsion and seaweed solution lightly to young and recently harvested plants; heavy applications may produce lush foliage at the expense of flavor.