Coriander is thought to be one of the first herbs to be used by mankind, perhaps as far back as 5000 BC. It has been cultivated as a medicinal and culinary herb for at least 3,000 years and is mentioned in Sanskrit texts, on Egyptian papyri and in "Arabian Nights" tales. Native to southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, coriander was brought to northern Europe by the Romans. They used it combined with cumin and vinegar as a preservative, which they rubbed into meat. Although one of the first herbs cultivated by early settlers in the mid-1600s, its increased use and popularity is reasonably recent in American kitchens, brought on by the popularity of the more exotic Middle East, Chinese and Mexican cuisines.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is annually grown for its aromatic seeds. All parts of the plant are edible, but the dried seeds (coriander) and the fresh leaves (cilantro) are the most commonly used in cooking. All coriander parts have a pungent aroma that is considered by some to be an unpleasant one. For this reason, it is not the best of plants to grow in a confined space or indoors, but it does deserve a place in the garden for the seeds. The seeds are almost completely round, small and beige, with a light brown ribbed spherical seed case. Once ripened, the seeds have a strong, sweet taste. The seeds are described as having a lemony citrus flavor when crushed or additionally as warm, nutty, spicy or orange-flavored - take your pick.
Grow coriander for seeds in a light, rich soil in full sun. In early spring, sow the seed (away from fennel but beside dill) where it is to flower. The plants can be thinned to 4 to 6 inches apart (the long roots make it difficult to transplant) and will grow from 1 to 3 feet high. Tiny, white flowers are borne in small umbels in late summer and, if left unpicked, will form the seeds. Coriander needs as long a growing season as possible to make sure the seeds will ripen (from green to brown) so you may have to protect the plant some at night. In late summer when seeds have turned a light grayish brown, cut down the plants and leave them in a dry, airy place for two to three days. When completely dried, shake out the seeds and store (not too long for optimal flavor) in an air-tight container away from sunlight or heat. Ground coriander seeds quickly lose their flavor when stored so are best ground as needed.
Commercially grown coriander seeds, the best coming from Egypt and North Africa, are an essential ingredient in curry powder and other spice mixtures. Cooks add it to flavor soups, sauces and vegetable dishes - even marmalade, ginger bread and apple pie. The beloved Christmas sugarplums originally were sugar-coated coriander that when bit started sweet followed by a quick burst of spicy flavor. Today, it is extensively used to mask the unpleasant taste of some medicines and if it hadn't previously won you over, give it another try.
Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org