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 the “Tales of the Arabian Nights.”
Native to southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, coriander was brought to northern Europe thanks to the Romans. They used it combined with cumin and vinegar as a preservative that they then 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 an annual 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, and once ripened, 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 will flower. The plants can be thinned to four to six inches apart (the long roots make it difficult to transplant) and will grow from one to three 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 at night. In late summer, when the 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 they 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, vegetable dishes and even marmalade, ginger bread and apple pie. The beloved Christmas sugarplums originally were sugar-coated coriander that when bit into, 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 CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.