By Melinda Myers
Cilantro is a favorite ingredient in guacamole, tacos, rice dishes and of course salsa. But as summer temperatures climb, the cilantro quickly goes to seed. This can be frustrating but using all parts of the plant or growing a heat tolerant cilantro-flavored substitute can help.
Gardeners in cooler climates can sow seeds every three to four weeks throughout the summer for continual harvests. Those with hotter summers will have the best results growing cilantro in the cooler temperatures of spring, fall and even winter.
Grow cilantro in full sun or light shade as temperatures climb and moist well-drained soil for best results. Mulching the soil to keep the roots cool and moist will help delay flowering. Avoid overwatering that can lead to root rot.
Harvest the leaves when they are four to six inches tall and before the plants flower for the best flavor. Harvest as needed a third of the plant at one time to allow it to keep producing or cut the whole plant back to an inch above the ground and wait for it to regrow.
Store freshly cut leaves like a bouquet of flowers in a glass of fresh water. Place in the refrigerator to use for the upcoming week. Hang leaves upside down to dry or freeze. Just wash the leaves, pat dry and place in a freezer bag or air-tight container in the freezer. Or chop up the rinsed cilantro into smaller pieces, place in ice cube trays and top with a splash of water before placing in the freezer.
As temperatures rise, the plant will flower and set seed. Do not discard it but rather look at utilizing the other parts of this plant. Enjoy the beauty and flavor of the lacy white flowers that also attract beneficial insects to the garden.
After the white flowers fade, green seeds appear. Wait for the plants and seeds to turn brown when using them as coriander. Cut off the seed heads, place in a paper bag, and allow the seeds to drop to the bottom. The seeds are ground and used in breads, cakes, pickling spices, and Asian food. Store in sealed containers until ready to use.
Otherwise allow the seeds to drop to the ground in the garden and grow new cilantro plants to harvest and enjoy. Cilantro seeds sprout readily when soil temperatures are 55 to 68ºF and the plants can withstand a light frost.
Don’t forget to harvest the roots and use them for seasoning Thai and Vietnamese food. These taste best when harvested in fall.
In the future, consider buying seeds of slow bolting cilantro varieties like Slow-Bolt, Leisure and the 2006 All-America Selections award winner Delfino Cilantro.Or try growing Papalo, also known as summer cilantro, in next year’s garden. It has a similar but stronger flavor than cilantro with a hint of citrus and mint and thrives in hot weather.
You will only need one or two plants as this annual grows up to five feet tall and several feet wide. Harvest young leaves for the best flavor and use only ½ or 1/3 the amount of cilantro called for in recipes. You may need to start your own plants from seeds if none of the garden centers in your area sell plants.
Start seeds indoors or directly in the garden once the danger of frost has passed and the soil is warm. Extend your cilantro harvest and enjoyment by utilizing every part of the plant. Adjust your cilantro growing techniques as well as plant selection to help beat the heat.
Myers has written more than 20 gardening books. She is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.