How to Grow Cilantro and Harvest Your Own Coriander Seeds
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a wonderful herb originating from southern Europe, northern Africa, and southeast Asia. It is used frequently around the world for cooking, especially in Asian, Indian, Latin-American, and Russian cuisine.
The herb is particularly key to authentic Mexican food, where you'll find it in hot sauces, ceviches (a fresh salad of fish or shrimp with tomato, onion, and other herbs), and of course guacamole. In Russia, they use it to prepare sausages and other similar products. And in India, its seeds—a spice called coriander—is an important ingredient of curry and garam masala.
This guide will show you how to grow and care for this extremely useful and tasty herb, as well as provide directions for harvesting coriander seeds from your plant.
Why Bother With Cilantro?
When I started growing cilantro in my home country, I abandoned the effort after three or four “crops." It was just so inexpensive and common in Mexico that I would rather grow basil instead.
But then I moved to Spain and everything changed. I didn't know that this common plant that I had taken for granted was not that common here and very expensive (compared to Mexico’s prices). And if you use this plant in your cooking, you cannot really substitute cilantro’s fresh flavor with other plants like parsley (which are often mistaken for each other due to their similar appearances).
Cilantro is really easy to grow, however. It grows fast, doesn't require a lot of work, and is a good companion to tomatoes, peppers, and other herbs as well. So, if you like cilantro, growing it in your garden is definitely worth your time.
What Does Cilantro Look Like?
- The first set of leaves are long and plain, but the rest of the leaves are lobulated.
- They grow a long, straight stem with several branches and leaves. Their stems can reach 50–60 centimeters (19–23 inches) high.
- Before flowering, upper leaves will become longer, thinner, and feathery. The taste of the leaves bitters at this moment.
- Flowers are small, white or pale lilac, and grow in clusters.
How to Sow Cilantro Seeds
Cilantro’s seeds are big, round, and covered with a rugged beige or light brown skin (when dried). When seeds are germinating, soil must be kept wet. So constant watering is a must—but don't overdo it!
These seeds germinate fast, from three days to a couple of weeks, depending on the environment. And since most seeds will likely germinate, don't sow too many. Otherwise, you might end having to remove several plants.
Here are some additional tips to help you effectively sow your cilantro seeds:
- If you use pots, you can plant seeds any time you like, unless you live in a place with harsh winters. If you are planting outside, the best time is during spring-summer. And if you live in a place with good weather, don’t bother with seed trays—just plant them directly in their final spot.
- Cilantro is not a picky plant, but it is better to use fertile to sandy soil. It can still grow in poorer soil though, as long as it has good drainage.
- Its roots are 50–60 cm (19–23 in) deep. Each stem produces a lot of small branches and leaves, so choose a medium to large pot. If you do not care about the plant producing flowers and seeds, however, a small pot is enough to have a quick crop of tender leaves—and you can consume the tender leaves while the plant is growing.
- Sow seeds 1 cm (a little less than half an inch) into the soil, with a separation of 5–8 cm (2–3 in) between seeds. I like to set the seeds and then cover them with soil.
- The first set of leaves are long and plain, and sometimes they are stuck with the seed as a "hat." Don’t worry, they will lose the seed “hat” in a few days. If you try to remove it, however, you could pull out the plant, because their roots are not too strong yet.
- It is an annual plant, but the leaves have a bitter taste once they are flowering. Therefore, if you plan to use it for cooking, you will have to plant seeds a few times per year to have good, usable plants all year long.
- Some growers suggest planting every two weeks to ensure you will have fresh cilantro all year long. I think this is too much space devoted to a single plant. For me, planting every three months works fine for my family of three.
Overwatering Can Kill Your Cilantro Plant
Cilantro is not a water-loving plant. After the seeds germinate, you can reduce watering. This is especially important, because overwatering can kill your plant.
How to Care for Your Cilantro Plant
- Cilantro is not a water-loving plant. After the seeds germinate, you can reduce watering. This is especially important, because overwatering can kill your plant (it doesn’t respond well to water-logging).
- It is better to provide plenty of sun, though it can also grow in partial shade. It prefers morning or late afternoon sun.
- It doesn’t need too much fertilizing. Once its whole lifecycle is established, choose a high-potassium/low-nitrogen mix.
- Cilantro grows well in most soils, but the best would be sandy. The least desirable choices are soils with high clay content, because it won’t drain well and cilantro does not thrive with too much water.
- It grows well with compatible plants such other herbs, as well as tomatoes and peppers. This enhances their flavor and helps keep them free of diseases.
- It is important to keep the area free from weeds, especially if planted directly in the garden. It is more difficult to keep everything clean and tidy when weeds have taken over.
How to Cut and Keep Cilantro Seeds and Leaves
Cilantro tastes better when it is freshly cut. You can trim the outer, tender leaves from the exterior branches when needed without damaging the plant.
You can then dry the leaves. But the difference in taste is huge, and they do not freeze well either.
If you need to keep cilantro for later use, here’s a suggestion:
- Chop the leaves and immediately freeze them with some purified water as ice cubes.
- When they have frozen, you can keep the ice-cilantro cubes in a Ziploc bag in the freezer.
- Always use the same amount of cilantro, and remember how much you used per ice cube.
How to Harvest Cilantro Seeds
To get the seeds, you must cut the flower clusters in their stems when the seeds are reddish, and let them dry upside down or inside a paper bag.
Once stems have dried up, you can get the seeds. You can also keep them in a paper bag until you need them.
Note: If you grow cilantro in your garden, you can leave the plant to grow and produce seeds. If left alone, their own seeds will fall down, allowing you to harvest them easily. You can then remove the plants when they are no longer productive to create space for new ones.
Fun Facts About Cilantro
- Cilantro has an antibacterial effect to protect against salmonella. Additionally, its antioxidants slow down the decomposition process, and food cooked with cilantro last longer for this reason.
- It's a plant that attracts butterflies and other beneficial plague-eating insects (especially when flowering).
- Many people (but not all) find the smell of the plant offensive. I didn’t smell a thing, but my husband was always complaining!
- Not all people are fond of cilantro’s taste either. Some people feel it tastes soapy, and this is linked to genetics. For more info on this phenomenon, check out this informative Delishably article on The Real Reason Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap.
Can you cook without cilantro?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Gabriela Hdez