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A Floridata Plant Profile #673 Coriandrum sativum
Common Names: coriander, cilantro, Arab parsley, Chinese parsley
Family: Apiaceae/Umbelliferae (carrot Family)
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coriander flowers
Cilantro is an attractive herb with lacy foliage and tiny flowers held in attractive compound umbels.
The herb, Coriandrum sativum, gives us two distinctly different flavors for the kitchen. The lacy foliage is "cilantro", a parsley-like garnish with a distinctive, fresh fragrance that is indispensable in Mexican and Southeast Asian salads, soups, and meat dishes. The dried seeds are "coriander", a pleasantly aromatic spice that is much used in European and Middle Eastern stews, sausages, sweet breads and cakes.

Coriander is a delicately branched annual that reaches a height of 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) with a spread of 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m). It often becomes top heavy and falls over, sprawling along the ground and sending up branches like so many new plants. The lower leaves of coriander are lobed, about 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) across, and look a little like Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum). The upper leaves are finely dissected into linear segments and almost fernlike. The white or pink flowers are tiny and borne in numerous compound umbels (flat-topped clusters in which the flower stems arise from a single point). The flower clusters are only about 1-2 (2.5-5.1 cm) across, but are so abundant that the whole plant is quite showy. The seeds are contained in spherical yellowish brown pods that are ribbed and rough textured, and about an eighth inch in diameter.

Coriander is one of two species in the genus Coriandrum that are native to southern Europe and the western Mediterranean region. Coriander was cultivated in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome for culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the oldest spices mentioned in recorded history, with evidence of its use more than 5000 years ago. Today coriander is grown almost everywhere (except Japan) for the leaves (cilantro), or the seeds (coriander), or both.

Coriander is extremely easy to grow in almost any soil. It grows quickly, producing harvestable cilantro (the leaves) in a month or so and coriander (the seeds) in about 90 days.
Light: Coriander does well in full sun to partial shade.
Moisture: Coriander grows best in dry climates, with well drained soil, but appreciates regular watering. It suffers during humid, rainy weather.
Hardiness: Coriander is an annual that can tolerate light frosts, but suffers under high temperatures and humidity. It is planted in spring in USDA hardiness zones 3-8 and in fall or winter in zones 9-11.
Propagation: Sow seeds where the plants are to be grown after the last expected frost. Coriander freely self-sows and in Mexico and Central America it is often allowed to perpetuate itself in unkempt, semi-weedy garden plots not far from the kitchen.

cilantro in the garden
A stand of cilantro in Steve's garden well on its way to becoming coriander!
Pick cilantro leaves as you need them, even if the plant is only 6 in (15.2 cm) tall. Cilantro almost always is used fresh, but it can be frozen for use later in the summer when the plants have died. Cilantro is used extensively in Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, North African and Latin American cuisine. Use whole sprigs as a garnish or mince and add to salads, soups, sauces and relishes. Cilantro goes well with fish and especially well with beans.

Harvest coriander for the seeds when the plants turn brown. Immature seeds are bitter. Cut whole plants and hang to dry. Then, shake the dried fruits into a paper bag and rub them between your hands to wear off the pods. Store in an airtight jar. Coriander is used as an aromatic spice in Chinese, Indian, and European cooking. It is used in chutneys, curries, marinades and in sausages. Coriander is often ground into a powder (use a pepper mill) to flavor sweet breads, cakes and confectioneries.

coriander seeds
These coriander seeds are ready for harvest.
Coriander seeds are used in perfumery and pharmacologically to disguise the taste of medicines, and to flavor gin and liqueurs. They sometimes are coated with sugar and served as "sugar drops" or "comfits." It is said that large quantities of coriander seed produce a narcotic effect. In Thailand the roots are grated and used as a condiment. Members of an aboriginal tribe in Peru are said to consume so much cilantro that they exude the odor of the plant. The flowers of coriander are attractive to many kinds of beneficial insects and the foliage is eaten by the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies.

For the etymologically inclined, we feel compelled to report that the name, "coriander", is derived from the Greek for "bed-bug", because the smell of the fresh foliage is said to resemble that of bug infested bed linens. (The mature seeds do not retain this smell.)

Steve Christman 5/7/00; updated 11/17/03

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