By Larry Hodgson
Do you know culantro?
Yes, I did spell that correctly: culantro, not cilantro, although my spellchecker refuses to believe me.
Its botanical name is Eryngium foetidum, so it’s a close relative of the garden perennial known as sea holly (E. ritro and others). It’s what is known as an umbellifer, a plant that produces domelike umbels of flowers, from the Apiaceae or carrot family.
Culantro is an easy-to-grow herb from the tropical Americas and West Indies and widely used in the cooking throughout that region. It’s also widely grown in Southeast Asia, where it is so popular it’s hard to imagine cooking without it! You might also hear it called spiny coriander, Mexican coriander, ngo gai, saw-toothed herb or saw-toothed mint. Even chadon beni (creole for blessed thistle) in the Caribbean.
Different Plants, Similar Name
Culantro gets its name from cilantro, Spanish for coriander (Coriandrum sativum), a European herb from a different branch of the Apiaceae family. Culantro, with a “u,” is actually an older spelling of cilantro that has lived on as the name for E. foetidum, while cilantro, with an “i”, is true coriander, again C. sativum. Historically, both names, culantro and cilantro*, can be traced to the ancient Greek korios, for stinkbug, an insect which has a similar scent.
*In the rest of this article, I’ll use the terms culantro for culantro (E. foetidum) and coriander for C. sativum.
The reason for the confusion between the two plants is simple: they share a very similar aroma and flavor. A sort of taste that some people dislike yet others adore. The naysayers claim it tastes like soap! In Cuba, culantro is often called yerba de sapo or toad herb, clearly indicating a certain distaste. And even the botanical name, foetida, means stinky! I must admit, though, that I’m a culantro-lover. I find a whiff of culantro really stimulates the appetite and prepares your salivary glands for the delicious meal to come!
So, similar aroma and taste, but physically, the two plants look nothing alike.
Culantro (E. foetidum) first forms a low-growing rosette of rather leathery lance-shaped leaves with a distinctly saw-toothed edge. They grow up to 1 ft (30 cm) long and 1 ½ in (4 cm) wide, spiraling around a very short ground-hugging stem. Underground, it has a white tap root.
When culantro blooms (that is, if it blooms, as blooming is considered undesirable and the herb is often harvested before it gets that far), it bears a thick upright stalk topped with a cluster of narrow green spiny bracts from which extends a cone of tiny greenish-white flowers.
Culantro is a biennial, sprouting one year, blooming the next, then dying.
Coriander (C. sativum) is a much lacier-looking plant, with deeply lobed, thin, wedge-shaped leaves much like those of its close relative, parsley, although not as dark in color. And indeed, it’s often called Chinese parsley. At least, that describes the leaves at the base of the plant.
The upper leaves are much thinner and deeply cut. They’re borne on a taller and fairly thin flower stalk topped off by classic Apiaceae flattened umbels of white to pinkish fan-shaped flowers, much like wild carrot blooms.
Coriander is also a fast-growing, short-lived annual adapted to temperate climates, not a tropical biennial like culantro.
You couldn’t possibly mistake the coriander and culantro in the garden: they’re two very different plants!
Today, culantro is mainly used in cooking as a food flavoring and seasoning herb in Caribbean, Latin American and Asian cuisine. That includes sauces, stews, chutneys and all sorts of other dishes, often with meats. Culantro is well-adapted to the tropics where is easily replaces coriander, adapted to cooler climates. So, if a recipe calls for coriander, you can always substitute culantro. Just use less, as it has a stronger aroma and taste than coriander.
Typically, you harvest culantro as needed, pulling or cutting a leaf or two free from the base of the plant’s rosette and chopping it up finely. You can store fresh culantro leaves in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks in a sealed container.
Unlike coriander leaves, which don’t hold up well in heat and have to be added to meals at the last minute, culantro is highly heat resistant. It retains its color, aroma and flavor when cooked. In fact, cooking helps its flavor to blend better into the dish, so ideally you’d add it at the very beginning.
Culantro also dries very well, again, unlike coriander. Generally, the whole plant is harvested and dried, then the leaves are removed and chopped into small pieces for storage. In a sealed bottle or container, they keep for months if not years.
In its native range in the Americas, as well as in Asia, culantro is a popular traditional medicine for a wide range of ailments, from colds, fevers and upset stomachs to asthma, diabetes and convulsions. It is even recommended in treating scorpion stings! It old botanical name, E. antihystericum alludes to its role in treating epileptic seizures. Scientific studies show it contains eryngial, a chemical compound of anti-inflammatory and antibacterial value.
You can buy culantro plants from many nurseries, some online, and also from seed. It needs warm temperatures at all times, yet can bolt (go to seed prematurely) under the effect of long days and excessive heat. In hot climates, therefore, it will do best in partial shade; in cool ones, in full sun.
It adapts to most garden soils, including poor ones, as long as drainage is good. A pH of 6 to 7.5 would be perfect.
In warm climates with a long growing season (USDA hardiness zones 8 to 11), you can sow culantro seeds outdoors where they are to grow in early spring.
Most gardeners in temperate climates, though, will need to start culantro indoors. If that’s your case, sow the seeds about 8 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Since culantro has a tap root that doesn’t appreciate disturbance, sow it in a biodegradable pot (peat, coir, or cow pot). Fill a pot with pre-moistened potting mix or seed mix. Simply press 2 to 3 seeds into the soil in the center of the pot. Don’t cover them with soil: they need light to germinate.
Place the pot in a mini-greenhouse of some sort (under a clear plastic dome, inside a clear plastic bag, etc.) to maintain high humidity and stabilize the temperature. Warmth is needed for good germination, ideally 80°F (26°C) or more, so a heating pad can be useful. Expose the seed pots to bright light, but not yet full sun.
Germination is often irregular and slow: from 14 days to up to 30 days. However, the plants grow quite rapidly afterward. When new leaves appear and start to expand, it’s time to remove the protective covering and move your seed trays to a sunny window ledge. After a few weeks, thin to one plant per pot, keeping the strongest seedling.
The main care indoors will be watering carefully to keep the growing medium slightly moist.
About 2 weeks before you expect to be able to plant out, start acclimatizing the seedlings to outdoor conditions, starting in a shaded, protected spot, then moving them gradually to more intense light. If evenings remain cool, you may need to bring them indoors at night. (They just don’t do well under cool conditions.) Nor should you move the plants to their permanent place in the garden until nights remain above 50°F (10°C).
You can plant young culantros in the garden, pot and all given that they grow in biodegradable pots, but they often do better when planted into containers, especially in temperate climates. That’s because temperatures there are warmer both early and late in the season. You can plant them at a rate of about 1 plant per 1-gallon (4-L) pot. In the ground, space them about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) apart.
During the growing season, water as needed, keeping the soil somewhat on the moist side. This is not a plant that tolerates drought! Don’t hesitate to cover the plant’s root zone with mulch, especially if you grow your culantro in full sun, as mulch helps keep the roots both cooler and moister. During the summer, you can fertilize with an all-purpose organic fertilizer for better leaf size and color, following the dosage recommended on the product’s label.
If all goes well, your culantro will provide fresh leaves all summer and into autumn… even all winter in tropical and subtropical climates. If plant starts to bolt (go to seed)—and this does happen! —, consider the season over. Harvest whatever leaves you need for fresh use over the next few weeks and dry the others as explained above.
Culantro should be started fresh each year, even where it survives the winter, as second-year plants quickly go to seed. So pull your plants at the end of the season in readiness for next year’s garden.
Finally, even culantro seed tends to be short-lived. You should consider either harvesting your own seed by letting one plant go to seed you can then harvest and store until spring. Either that, or buy fresh seed every 2 years.
Culantro: you probably didn’t even know what it was before you read this article and now, I hope, you’re eager to grow it. I call that progress!