Culantro, an herb native to Mexico, Central, and South America, has a strong, aromatic scent that fills the air when you brush up against it. This easy-to-grow herb has many culinary uses in Caribbean, Latin American, and Asian cuisine. It is also very popular in Panama, Puerto Rico, and other Latin-influenced areas. Although used in small amounts, its very strong flavor is used as a seasoning in a wide range of foods, including meats, vegetables, and chutneys. It goes by many names: long coriander, false coriander, recao (Spanish), langer koriander (German), ngo gai (Vietnamese), pak chi farang (Thai), and bhandhanya (Hindi). Like its close relative cilantro, the plant tends to stretch tall and go to seed in the lengthening days of spring. While culantro and cilantro look different, the leaf aromas are similar, although culantro is stronger. Grown as an annual, it is actually biennial in areas warm enough to let it overwinter.
In the Garden
Growing culantro is like growing lettuce. You plant after frost in the spring, then pick individual leaves until summer’s long days and high temperatures arrive. At that point, culantro, like lettuce, will grow out of its rosette, stretching upward with a fast-growing stalk that will bloom and set seeds. Soon afterward, the plant is usually exhausted and dies. If the seeds are allowed to drop into the soil, it may reseed. However, in areas that experience freezing temperatures in winter, this tender tropical will be killed. Your best bet is to grow it in spring and cut off the flower stalk when it appears in order to encourage continued leafy growth, rather than flowers. It will eventually succeed in flowering, and when it does, the leaves will become somewhat tough and less appealing.
Soil, Planting, and Care
In Central America, where it is native, culantro grows in partly shady areas on the edge of the forest. Gardeners have found that planting culantro in partial shade will result in larger leaves and a prolonged harvest. Plants growing in full sun will attempt to flower earlier than those in shade, shortening their useful lifespan. Space plants about 8 to 12 inches apart in soil that is well drained. Because you want leafy growth, a rich, organic soil is ideal. Add compost or dehydrated manure to give your plants a good start. Fertilize with timed-release granules to assure optimum growth, or use a liquid plant food like Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food both at planting and every couple of weeks thereafter.
Mulch plants to conserve soil moisture and to prevent soil from splashing onto the foliage. Water as needed to keep plants healthy.
This is not a plant to set out if there is any chance of a late frost, and it should be sheltered if you have one. Use a black nursery pot turned upside down on top of the plant to protect it, then remove it in the morning as soon as the temperature has risen.
Harvest and Storage
To gather fresh leaves for use in the kitchen, cut the large outer leaves individually. However, if you plan to process and preserve culantro, use a knife to harvest the entire rosette at soil level.You can preserve the wonderful flavor by putting the leaves of culantro in a food processor with enough olive oil to moisten it. Once it is chopped, put the mixture into a freezer container, add a layer of olive oil on top to prevent freezer burn, label it, and place it in the freezer. Whenever you need culantro, use a knife to chip a bit off.
Culantro can be used as you would use cilantro, although the flavor is somewhat stronger. A traditional use is to make recaito, a Caribbean sauce used as a condiment in numerous dishes.
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When you say culantro, do you mean cilantro?
How should I grow culantro?
This is one of the few herbs that actually prefer the shade. It will still grow in the sun, but its leaves will be smaller and the plant will be quicker to bloom. You want it to grow as many large, flavorful leaves as possible for as long as possible. Cutting the flower stalk off will help, but you will need to do it repeatedly. Enrich the soil when you plant with organic matter such as compost. Choose a location with shade, at least in the afternoon, moist soil.
Harvest plants by cutting individual leaves. You can also cut all the leaves on a rosette, but leave the crown in place so it can re-grow. Cut only as you need the leaves, as they are quite perishable; this explains their scarcity in most markets.