Cilantro is my favorite feral plant in the yard. It pops up in pathways, under fruit trees, over by the fence. And I do still plant some in my garden beds.
I haven’t bought cilantro seed or plants for years because I’ve got a routine that keeps the cycle running with very little effort on my part. It starts with the first rains in fall. That’s when cilantro seed throughout the yard germinates.
Up pop the lime green cotyledons, and then the ferny true leaves. The winter rains sustain the plants. Even in dry years, I’ve never had to water them — they really do grow like they’re wild.
Through winter we eat the cilantro until late winter when the oldest plants start to bolt.
Or do they flower? Bolt has a negative connotation: it’s what lettuce does before you feel like you’ve gotten enough harvests out of the plant. But I should say that cilantro flowers because I grow it for its flowers as much as for its delicious leaves. Cilantro flowers feed bees and other pollinating and beneficial insects, such as syrphid flies.
The flowers turn into seed in late spring, and I let much of the seed fall to the ground below the mother plants. That way I don’t have to plant again next year.
I also collect some of the seed in order to start new patches of cilantro elsewhere. That’s how cilantro seed has found its way throughout the yard.
The next fall rains arrive, and the cycle starts again.
Sowing and planting cilantro
It is now early February, and I’ve still got some cilantro seed on hand. I like to keep some seed around so I can continue sowing new cilantro into the spring, maybe even summer, so I can eat it further into the warm part of the year, after the plants that grew naturally during winter have gone to flower.
A single cilantro plant grows to about a foot in diameter (then wider once it flowers), so you can set plants or sow seeds about that far apart. However, I often grow them more closely; they seem to like the company.
By the way, I have often heard or read this type of advice: “Cilantro is taprooted and transplants poorly, so start from seed.” That’s what the Sunset Western Garden Book says, but I find it to be only half true. Yes, cilantro has a taproot, but I’ve transplanted many cilantro seedlings over the years just fine. So I say, start them from seed or transplant them as seedlings, whichever you prefer. Both work.
Cilantro doesn’t like summer. This has always struck me as strange because I use most of my cilantro in salsa, and all of the other salsa ingredients are ready to eat in summer: tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, lemons or limes. But cilantro is naturally a winter herb here in Southern California.
You can force cilantro to grow during warm weather though. It will grow in heat, briefly, until it shoots up a flower stalk, trying to finish its life as fast as possible.
Bolting and flowering
I’ve heard it advised to cut the flower stalk in order to get more leafy growth out of a cilantro plant, but that’s never worked for me. Once a cilantro plant decides it’s time to stop only making leaves and start making flowers, it seems insistent on making flowers. In my experience, cutting the flower stalk only causes it to restart growing its flower stalk, not to revert to leaf production again.
You’ll find varieties of cilantro that claim to be “slow bolting,” but I’ve never found such varieties to be significantly slower to bolt than varieties that don’t make that claim.
The best way to be sure to get an extended harvest of cilantro is to sow or plant successively, that is, sow or plant new cilantro seeds or seedlings every few weeks or so.
And once the cilantro plants flower, enjoy this very useful stage of their lives. For one, a flowering cilantro plant is pretty, a bush of tiny white flowers.
And secondly, bees and other insects love cilantro flowers and their pink pollen. Did you know that the pollen of cilantro flowers is pink? I first learned this from Gordon Frankie, of UC Berkeley’s Urban Bee Lab, and after learning so I’ve had fun trying to observe the collections of pink pollen on the legs of honeybees and native bees who visit cilantro flowers.
I usually harvest cilantro by pinching stems just below their lowest sets of leaves. You can also harvest cilantro with scissors. In fact, you can cut all the leaves off a cilantro plant almost to the ground and the plant will grow back since the crown of a cilantro plant (where new leaves emerge) is almost at ground level. Cilantro is like lettuce in this respect.
February here is not too late to easily sow some cilantro in your yard. We should get a few more rains in the next month or so, which could possibly sustain the plants through their entire lives. Buy some seeds and scatter them over mulch (that’s how I do it).
Or push the seeds into dirt about a quarter inch. Look for the plants to germinate a couple weeks after the next rain, or give them an earlier start with a single deep handwatering. Consider yourself warned, though, because after you see how naturally and easily they grow this time of year you might find yourself encouraging them to grow like weeds all over your yard.
A list of my Yard Posts is here.