ISSUE 29  |  Urban Escape

Field Guide: Cilantro

July 21, 2014 6:30 PM

BY Laura Boyle

Cilantro, Coriandrum sativum: “Pharaoh’s Friend”

Cilantro makes another winning argument for home-grown vegetables. This leafy herb, a cross-cultural superstar, fits in a pot on your windowsill, brightens up almost any savory dish, and smells wonderful while growing.

The herb has been popular for centuries, earning mentions in Sanskrit texts and in the Bible. Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with cilantro. And nowadays, health scientists concur that cilantro could help stave off the afterlife. The herb packs in the vitamins–A, K, and C–and also acts as a heavy metal detoxifier.

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Above: Photograph by Marie Viljoen. For more, see The New Vegetable Garden: 7 Essentials to Grow (and Eat) This Fall.

Cilantro has the best flavor and vigor when it’s fresh. The plants bring beneficial insects to your garden, especially when grown with mint, basil, and parsley. Although it bolts in the heat, multiple successions take care of that. There’s also a benefit to the bolt–coriander spice comes from the dried and ground seed heads. 

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Above: That’s cilantro on the left in Erin Boyle’s window box.

Cheat Sheet

  • Bright green, lacy foliage and small white flowers make cilantro a good companion at the edge of a flower bed.
  • Combine with other small-flowering, pungent herbs to bring beneficial insects.
  • Delicious in stir-fries, sauces, and dips in cuisines ranging from Indian to Mexican to Brazilian.

Keep It Alive

  • An edible biennial, cilantro is hardy in all zones, in full sun or partial shade.
  • Plant outdoors in cool seasons (spring or fall) or keep a pot indoors (it will tolerate a shady windowsill).
  • Snip leaves on a weekly basis to keep the plant from getting leggy.

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Above: Another favorite summer recipe: Gin and Tonic with Cilantro. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

In one study, researchers demonstrated that a handful of cilantro could clear a jug of contaminated water of almost all its lead content. Use it freely to reap the maximum health benefits: Add it to guacamole, juice it into a smoothie, layer it into black beans. 

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Above: Starting cilantro seeds indoors? See Gardening 101: How to Sprout a Seed. Photograph by John Merkl for Gardenista.

To get the most from your cilantro plants, choose a slow-bolting variety and provide adequate moisture during germination. Plant in rich soil; cilantro demands little else. If you want, let some go to seed, then hang the heads upside down in a paper bag so you can harvest the orange-peel scented seeds and grind them to make coriander.

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Above: Photograph by John Merkl for Gardenista.

Read about more of our favorite Plants & Seeds in our archives. If you’re planning an herb garden, check out our Field Guide posts on Chives, Rosemary, and Tulsi Basil.