Name: Coriander, cilantro, Mexican or Chinese parsley (Coriandrum sativum)
Plant Type: annual herb
Height: to 60cm
Foliage: tri-lobed (compound) fan-shaped leaves. Thin, bright green, strongly aromatic. Similar in appearance to flat-leaved parsley.
Climate: tropical, sub-tropical in cool seasons, warm temperate and warm spots in cold temperate in warm seasons.
Soil: performs well in most soils but dislikes clay and will not tolerate waterlogging.
Position: full-sun to light shade. Avoid windy positions.
Flowering and fruiting: summer flowering. Tiny white to pale pink flowers are carried in groups on a flattened flower head (called an umbel). Small, fruit become round, brown, woody seed-capsules.
Feeding: add a controlled-release fertiliser at planting time.
Watering: requires reliable moisture for best growth.
It’s easy to mistake coriander for a variety of parsley at first sight. This is unsurprising as they are close cousins, however, crush a leaf and you’ll instantly smell the difference. Sharp, rich and pungent, the fragrance is a unique one.
Today we tend to associate coriander with Asian, particularly Thai, cuisines but it is a very cosmopolitan herb. It was used by the ancient Egyptians for both cooking and medicinal purposes and even rates a mention in the Old Testament.
It was widely used throughout Europe and Britain and is used in Mexican dishes. It’s a reliable and easy-to-grow herb that makes a lively and useful flavour addition to your herb or vegetable patch.
Coriander is a fast-growing annual herb. It is multi-stemmed, with the stems arising from a single growth point in a very loose form. The stems tend to be quite weak, especially those bearing flowers, so as the plant ages the stems tend to flop down with new smaller side shots going upright. This can create the impression of the plant having multiple growth points.
Leaves are distinctly fan shaped, however, the leaves along the flower stems tend to be quite fine and feathery. The regular leaves look like flat parsley, the finer leaves like fennel both of which are coriander’s close cousins.
The white-to-slightly-pink flowers are held in bunches on weak stems. Many pollinating and beneficial insects love these flowers. Seed quickly follows flowers. Technically the seeds are a fruit but do look like small woody nuts once dry.
Coriander is a flexible herb with multiple uses:
Coriander tends to like consistent and reliable warmth – between around 15˚C and 22˚C. Summer heat will trigger the plant to flower and produce seed so if growing for leaves ensure you plant early in the season.
This all creates the somewhat unusual situation of it growing best in the warm seasons in temperate and warm temperate regions and in the cool seasons in the tropics and sub-tropics. Established plants are said to tolerate light frost.
Prefers full sun but will grow in a little shade. In hotter zones protection from the strongest sun is advisable.
Coriander has weak stems and fine leaves. This means it is very easily damaged by wind, so aim for a protected spot.
Free-draining soil is essential. Soil only needs to be of moderate quality, some say that the best flavour comes from plants grown in moderate or even poor quality soil. Coriander will not thrive or survive in clay or waterlogged soil. In pots choose a certified organic potting mix or one blended for edibles.
Although coriander will happily grow in average quality soil, better performance will come from improving the soil with the addition of well-composted manure or quality compost. Add a little controlled release or organic fertiliser too.
Coriander can be quick to run to seed if roots are disturbed at planting time. Try to minimise root disturbance when planting seedlings or advanced plants.
For the longest leafy growing phase, try growing your coriander from seed. Just improve the soil and sow the seeds where you want the plants to grow.
Unlike most herbs, coriander is grown for all of its parts – leaves, stems, roots and seeds. Different recipes and cuisines make use of the various attributes of the different parts. Many people are disappointed when their coriander quickly bolts to flower and fruit. This is in fact what it’s most often grown for – its fruit. If you want a longer period of leafy pickings make successive plantings a week or so apart.
Unless you are growing specifically for seed then you want to have the longest leaf-only phase possible or at least a good balance of growth. The best way to do this is to ensure the plant does not become stressed as its response to this will be to bolt to seed.
Coriander likes to be reliably moist. Regularly water it, if it dries out in warm weather this will send it straight to seed.
Liquid feeding can be beneficial however lush plants often have lower flavour levels in the leaves.
Pick leaves by cutting, not pulling off, to avoid any stress on the roots. And remove any dead or damaged leaves.
Pruning will naturally happen as you pick leaves for the kitchen. This will help to bring on new shoots.
Pruning out the flower stem will not significantly prolong the life of the plant or force it to produce leaves for longer. It may in-fact end the plant’s season prematurely.
It’s unlikely you’ll encounter any pest problems with coriander as the essential oils seem to work as an insect repellent.
Coriander is only grown from seed.
In-situ: prepare soil to a suitable state and plant seeds in shallow rows. Keep moist and mulch around them as plants develop. Use a mulch, such as lucerne or pea straw.
In trays or individual pots: in a suitably warm and sunny location spread seed in containers filled with seed raising mix. Ideally keep warm and moist, however, seeds will germinate when temperatures are as low as 5˚C. Plant out once fear of frost has passed and make weekly planting for a longer harvest of foliage.
Chillies: no Asian flavour garden is complete without chillies.
Ginger: this is a must-have and makes an excellent garden or potted plant.
Thai basil: popular herb used in Asian dishes that has a distinct liquorice-like aroma and spicy undertones.
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