Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is an annual herb that closely resembles parsley and is in the same family of plants (Apiaceae). This pungent herb is native of southern Europe and is commonly known as Coriander, Cilantro, or Chinese Parsley. Its name is said to be derived from koris, Greek for "bedbug" since the plant smelled strongly of the insect.
The leaves of cilantro are light green, feathery, and flat. The distinctive flavor of cilantro leaves is quite different from that of parsley. While the leaves are used as an herb, the dried seeds, called coriander seed, are used as a spice and have an entirely different taste.
Cilantro is in the same family as culantro (Eryngium foetidum) and has a similar aroma and taste.
In Brazil, cilantro and scallions are essential ingredients for sauces commonly used in Brazilian cuisine. These two crops are often times sold together as cheiro-verde, referring to the color (green) and aroma.
Cilantro grows best in full sun. Plant the seed 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep every 1 inch in rows 12 inches apart. Keep moist until seeds germinate, which should take about 7 to 10 days. No thinning is required. Some growers will seed cilantro thicker than this (30 - 40 seeds/foot). The denser plant population competes more effectively with weeds in the row. In addition,the thicker planting makes harvesting easier since plants are bunched in the field. The "seed" of cilantro is actually the whole fruit with two embryos inside. This means that if you plant 10 "seeds" and get 100% germination you will have 20 cilantro plants.
Cilantro can be started in the greenhouse and transplanted into the field. This is done most often in the spring in order to get an earlier harvest; however, if the plants become stressed they will go to seed (bolt) quicker than if they were direct seeded.
Cilantro grows best under cool conditions while hot weather encourages it to flower. Cilantro will withstand temperatures as low as 10 F°, which makes it an excellent fall crop. Plantings of cilantro are usually made every 7 to 10 days during the season to ensure a steady supply. There is little information available about the fertility management of cilantro. Have the soil tested and use the same fertility management used for leafy vegetables such as lettuce or spinach.
Cilantro is ready to be harvested as soon as the plant is 4 - 6 inches tall, which can take 40 to 60 days after planting. It can take up to 120 days to produce mature seed (coriander).
If the older, outside leaves are harvested, the plant will continue to produce new foliage until it goes to seed. Large-scale commercial growers clip the plant just below ground level and bunch it. Many growers cut it off 1 inch above the ground. The plant can regrow for a second cutting; however, it does not regrow as efficiently as parsley and for that reason many growers just harvest it only once.
Cilantro can also be harvested by pulling out the whole plant. Some ethnic groups prefer to buy the plant with the roots intact. Some Asian groups will use the roots in their cuisine. Latinos surveyed at a farmers’ market in Massachusetts stated that their preference for cilantro with roots intact is that it stays fresher longer.
Bacterial leaf spot Pseudomonas syringae is the most important disease of cilantro. Symptoms consist of angular, vein-delimited leaf lesions that are at first water-soaked or translucent. Over time and with drying conditions, the leaf spots may turn black or brown. If infection is severe, leaf spots may coalesce and cause a blighting effect. Under experimental conditions the pathogen will also infect parsley.
This is a seedborne pathogen. Contaminated seed is an important means by which the disease spreads and establishes itself. Splashing water enhances develolment and and spread of this disease, so rain and sprinkler irrigation favor the pathogen.
As mentioned earlier, seeding thickly (20 - 30 seeds/foot) helps to control weeds in the row. Cultivation is needed for controlling weeds between rows. The only herbicide registered for use in Massachusetts for cilantro is Scythe. This is a fatty acid based, NON-SELECTIVE, contact herbicide that is labeled for use in the stale seedbed technique and shielded application (see label for use). One method to consider for weed management in cilantro is a stale seedbed technique. See the “weed management” section of the The New England Vegetable Management Guide for how to use the stale seedbed technique.
Post-Harvest Seed Handling
Cilantro has a fairly high respiration rate, similar to that of other green leafy vegetables. Therefore, in order to maintain optimum post harvest quality, cilantro should be harvested at the coolest times of the day (either early morning or in the evening), and stored under low-temperature, high humidity conditions. Although aromatic quality decreases before visual quality does, a shelf life of 14 days can be expected if cilantro is stored at temperatures close to 32°F. Because of cilantro's high water content, storage slightly above 32°F is necessary to avoid freezing damage.
A high surface to volume ratio makes cilantro very susceptible to water loss. Specially designed bags (either those with perforations for ventilation or those constructed of a partially permeable polymer) may be used as packaging; however, cool temperatures must be maintained.
Where refrigeration is not an option, wilting can be delayed by placing harvested cilantro in water and keeping the plants shaded from sunlight.
There are several commercially available varieties of cilantro. “Santos” is one of the most popular. The variety “Jantar” is a bolt-resistant varity. In a trial on a commercial farm in Weston, MA, “Santos” bolted 52 days after planting compared to 62 days for “Jantar”. However, the yield of “Jantar” was ½ that of “Santos”.