Herbs are rewarding to grow in our backyard gardens because they are best when fresh, are used frequently and are only needed in small quantities. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be self-sufficient in basil, parsley (except in the wet season), rosemary, lemongrass (we have enough to give away – just ask!) and so on. Coriander, however, has been a problem: in our climate, it “bolts” – that is, goes very rapidly to seed and then dies. That’s doubly frustrating because it is an essential flavour in Asian cooking and, when bought by the bunch, it doesn’t keep well.
Just to be clear, this is the ordinary Coriander I’m talking about (from wikipedia):
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), also known as cilantro, Chinese parsley or dhania, is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. Coriander is native to regions spanning from southern Europe and North Africa to southwestern Asia. It is a soft plant growing to 50 cm (20 in) tall. The leaves are variable in shape, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and slender and feathery higher on the flowering stems.
Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, also deriving from coriandrum. It is the common term in North America for coriander leaves, due to their extensive use in Mexican cuisine.
A few months ago we found an alternative, which we bought in a pot labelled “Sawtooth Coriander (Eryngium foetidum)” and planted out in the garden. Its appearance doesn’t suggest any relationship with coriander but crushing a leaf puts the connection beyond doubt: the aroma is exactly the same. The common names recognise the connection, too: Sawtooth Coriander, Thai Coriander, Pointed Cilantro or Thorny Coriander. The only tricky one is “Culantro”, just one letter away from “Cilantro”.
E. foetidum is widely used in seasoning and marinating in the Caribbean, particularly in Panama, Puerto Rico … and in Peru’s Amazon regions. It is also used extensively in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and other parts of Asia as a culinary herb. It dries well, retaining good color and flavor, making it valuable in the dried herb industry. It is sometimes used as a substitute for cilantro (coriander in British English), but it has a much stronger taste.
A couple of weeks ago our plant put up a flower stalk, seen in the photo above, making it even more thistle-like than it had been. The flowers are like minuscule pineapples nestled in rosettes of extremely spiky leaves:
The cultivation notes that came with our pot said “remove flower stalks when forming” and we did remove them once we realised what they were. The notes also gave another common name for the herb: Perennial Coriander. So far, so good!
Just for completeness, there is also a third herb which is sometimes known as coriander. As far as I know I have never seen it here in Townsville and it might not be called coriander here anyway. Here’s wikipedia’s description:
Persicaria odorata, the Vietnamese coriander, is a herb whose leaves are used in Southeast Asian cooking. Other English names for the herb include Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese cilantro, Cambodian mint and hot mint. The Vietnamese name is rau ram, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore it is called daun kesum or daun laksa (laksa leaf).
It’s in a different family (buckwheat or knotweed family) and looks quite different from either of the other two – more like a grass – as you will see if you click on the wikipedia link.