Cilantro, the key herb ingredient of salsas, may act as both a preservative and a protection against salmonella. A recent study of this leafy herb and its seeds contains dodecenal, a compound that kills salmonella. The accepted medical antibiotic used to kill salmonella in patients is gentamicin, but now some scientists believe dodecenal may prove even more effective as a killer. It’s easy to conclude that eating plenty of cilantro may indeed protect you and your family from this foodborne illness.
Cilantro is the quintessential herb for fresh Mexican cuisine and yet it is not a New World plant at all. Cilantro is actually Coriandrum sativum, or coriander, an annual herb native from the Mediterranean to Asia. When the young foliage is used in salsa, it’s an herb. When the seed is harvested as a spice, it’s called coriander. The plants have been a part of Greek and North African culinary traditions since ancient times proven by a cache of seed discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt.
The life cycle of this plant has two phases, a vegetative phase when it produces lots of luxurious foliage, and a reproductive phase when it’s not so edible, except for seed. This is why early spring is often the best time to sow your cilantro indoors to prepare to move it out later on when frost passes. When grown early indoors or in a greenhouse, the plants thrive in the cool moist weather, producing large quantities of cuttings. In warm climates, the vegetative phase ends early as temperatures rise and plants quickly go to seed. Therefore winter is the time to start your cilantro so it’s ready to produce when the weather is right.
If you saw cilantro for the first time in its reproductive phase, you might not recognize it at all. When plants reproduce, they bolt into a stiff tall stalk with pin-like leaves that have no resemblance to the vegetative phase foliage. It tastes different, too, because bolting changes the nature of the plant’s chemistry until seeds form as spice or the genesis of next year’s crop.
Gardeners often reserve a small place in the garden to grow cilantro perpetually. Here the plants are allowed to grow in a patch where they go to seed, then self sow to start another crop. Some of the plants will bolt to 3 feet tall and flower, providing much needed summer shade for new seedlings to grow underneath them. Using this method ensures new seed falls, often adding new plants year-round without you lifting a finger.
Another good way for urban gardeners to enjoy cilantro is to use a low wide pot and plant it with cilantro seed or store-bought seedlings just like the patch described above. This bowl can be sown again every few weeks after you remove any plants that are bolting. These bowls thrive out on a fire escape, balcony, porch or glass porch during cooler months. Simply snip the tips with a pair of scissors any time a recipe or dish calls for fresh herbs.
To grow cilantro in a vegetable garden, remember it is not amenable to wind. Grow in a sheltered location with bright light, avoiding direct afternoon sun. It thrives under a lightweight floating row cover that offers optimal sun filtering for more harsh climates. Provide nitrogen-rich planting mixes to existing garden soil to stimulate lush leaf and stem growth in young plants.
Grow your own cilantro if you love the flavors of fresh cuisine or freeze it in ice cubes for future use. Grow even more to crush and add to rinse water as you wash store-bought vegetables to kill any salmonella present. It’s sold in every seed rack, all seed catalogs and many gardeners keep the seed and never spend another penny, sowing their own organically grown cilantro seed year after year after year.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at email@example.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.