Honoring the Past, Planting the Future
By Susan Betz
Honoring the Past, Planting the Future
By Susan Betz
The herb becomes the teacher.
Men stray after false goals
When the herb he treads
Knows much, much more.
~Henry Vaughan Greek,
German, Swedish: coriander
Czech: coriander Russian: koriandr
Cultivating friendships and cultivating plants are similar in many respects; sometimes there is an instant connection with a plant or person and other times more careful effort is required to establish a growing relationship.
A dear friend of mine and I have traded seeds for years, and one year she passed along a small packet of coriander in exchange for marigold seeds. Due to the strong odor of the fresh foliage, I had never been very fond of coriander. But, remembering Henry David Thoreau’s words, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders,” so I planted the seeds and told myself to look at the plant from a new and different perspective.
I was surprised to learn that coriander (Coriandrum sativum) signifies “hidden merit” and “your closeness is welcome” in the language of flowers. Coriander is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The term Coriandrum is derived from the Greek “koris,” meaning a bug, referring to what some consider a rank bedbug-like smell of the plant’s leaves and unripe seeds. Coriander is known by similar terms the world over, testifying to the plant’s long association with humankind and extensive range, from central and southern Europe, Asia, and India to parts of North and South America.
Cilantro is the Spanish word used for the plant’s strongly scented bright-green foliage. It is also called Chinese parsley due to its long history of use in Thai and Chinese cuisine. Coriander in America refers to the dried seeds or fruits rather than the fresh leaves.
A Plant with a Past
One of the most documented of ancient culinary and medicinal herbs, coriander is known to have been cultivated in Egyptian gardens thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The Chinese used the herb as far back as the Han Dynasty in 207 BC and believed the seeds bestowed eternal life upon those who consumed them. Greek and Roman physicians, including Hippocrates, made medicines from it. Coriander was also a highly regarded culinary spice and the favored additive to Roman vinegar which was used to preserve meat in summer. The plant traveled to Britain with the Romans where it was cultivated in monastery gardens during the Middle Ages.
The legendary book of Arabian fairy tales The Thousand and One Nights mentions coriander both as an aphrodisiac and, along with fennel, as an ingredient in an incense used to summon the devil. That being said, in The Rodale Herb Book: How to Use, Grow and Buy Nature ’s Miracle Plants, gardeners are cautioned not to place the two herbs together in the garden because coriander is reputed to hinder the seed formation of fennel (Rodale 416).
Historically, John Josselyn’s seventeenth-century list of New England colonial garden plants includes coriander. Back in France, coriander seed was a prime ingredient of the famous Parisian Eau de Carmes which was both consumed as a pleasing cordial and used as cologne to freshen the body and spirit. Quite a versatile plant!
Description and Culture
The coriander plant belongs to the Apiaceae or Parsley family, previously known as Umbelliferae. Chervil, cumin, dill, anise, caraway, and fennel are a few other well known Apiaceae family members. Coriander is a quickly maturing herbaceous annual growing to 3 feet tall with a taproot and slender, finely grooved stems. The plant’s first, lower, roundish lobed leaves resemble Italian parsley, but later on, the new, upper foliage becomes fernlike and more jaggedly cut. Tiny white or lilac-tinged flowers grow in small, loose 1½ inch umbels neatly arranged in symmetrical clusters. The larger, outer florets open first, followed by the smaller, compact inner florets. The fruits are light brown, round globose seeds, about ¼ inch long, occurring in clusters. Depending on weather conditions, it may only take about two months for the plant to mature fully.
Field-grown coriander does not transplant well and grows best from seed sown directly into a sunny garden location. Old time gardeners relied on the bloom sequence of common plants growing in their local regions to let them know when it was safe to sow seeds and set plants in the garden. When the apple and cherry trees bloom in Michigan, it is a good time to plant coriander seed. When my friend Katja notices her tomatoes are starting to bloom, she plants extra coriander seed so as to harvest fresh cilantro for use in her salsa when her tomatoes ripen in late summer.
Experts on companion planting believe that planting coriander near anise will benefit the formation of anise seeds. Coriander and caraway are sometimes planted in the same row to help with weed control. Caraway is a biennial whose first year growth does not interfere with the coriander seedlings; the next year caraway has the row to itself. Sow seeds at two to three-week intervals for a continued harvest. It is important to thin the seedlings to about six inches apart keeping them well weeded and watered until they are firmly established. Coriander readily self-sows so allow at least one plant to make seed in an area that will not be disturbed early in the spring.
Coriander is two herbs in one, and its varied uses are based on different parts of the plant. Coriander seed takes roughly ninety days to mature. You can use the fresh leaves (cilantro) for seasoning early on in salsas, salads, and dips. Harvest the seeds when light tan in color before they begin to fall off. The crushed seeds are excellent in baked dishes using molasses, apples, cherries, or other fruits; and finely ground, they are used in curry powder. Whole seeds are an ingredient in pickling spice, and used to flavor gin and other liqueurs. Coarsely ground coriander adds a bergamot-like fragrance to potpourri.
Planting the Future
Herb gardeners often tend to start with the plants themselves and their herbal uses when planning a garden. Their usefulness in fulfilling a landscape function is often discovered after growing the plant for some other reason. Humans are not the only ones who like coriander. Pollinators do too, especially bees.
Protecting wildlife, particularly pollinators, has become a worldwide priority. Private citizens and advocacy organizations are planting trees, herbs and wildflowers to re-create habitat for pollinators. The role of the suburban landscape and home garden has become crucial to the future health and well-being of our planet. We can all make a difference one garden or plant at a time bridging the gap between nature and our cultivated landscapes. Easy going and companionable, coriander has a long history of use in and out of the garden. It is particularly attractive to our less conspicuous pollinators: bees, wasps, and flies.
In his monograph, Coriandrum sativum L.: Promoting the Conservation and Use of Underutilized and Neglected Crops,” research scientist Axel Diederichsen, Ph.D. verifies, “A further benefit of coriander derives from the reproductive biology of this plant. Coriander produces a considerable quantity of nectar and thereby attracts many different insects for pollination, an external effect which is of both ecological and economic value.” (Diederichsen, p. 22)
According to the North American Pollination Protection website 80 percent of all plants depend on pollinators. Pollinators, which are mainly insects, are indispensable partners for an estimated one out of every three mouthfuls of the food, herbs, condiments, and beverages we consume. They are essential for growing the plant fibers used in our clothing and many of the medicines that keep us healthy. (Hansen, p. 25) Pollinators are vital members of the delicate web that supports biological diversity in natural ecosystems which contribute to our quality of life. Coriander is one of those plants.
Bees, both managed honeybees and native bees, are primary pollinators in most areas of North America which has over 4,000 species of native bees. Bumblebees, leaf cutters as well as orchard mason, carpenter, sweat, and digger bees are just a few that were living in America long before the arrival of the honeybee. Native bee populations are declining due to lack of foraging plants, suitable nesting sites and the use of pesticides.
Native bees and other pollinators need forage plants with overlapping bloom times as they need pollen and nectar sources from early spring until late fall. Native bees and other pollinators come in many sizes, and they also require flowers of various shapes, sizes, and colors to forage on.
Depending on weather conditions, coriander sometimes begins blooming in Michigan in late April and continues with successive plantings through October. The flowers of the coriander plant attract many different pollinator and insect visitors. The plant is classified by ecologists as an insectary plant, that is, a flowering plant used to attract insect predators to feed on garden pests. Organic gardeners often interplant coriander in vegetable beds intentionally allowing it to bolt to attract beneficiary insects. Adult parasitoid wasps depend on the nectar sources in the form of tiny flowers on plants such as coriander. Syrphid flies, often mistaken for bees, are predatory insects as larvae, primarily feeding on aphids before maturing into important pollinators as adults.
Bees are not the only form of wildlife attracted to coriander; so are fish. For catching fish in large quantities, mix thoroughly equal parts of the following herb seeds: lovage, fennel, cumin, coriander, and anise. Steep seven teaspoons of mixture in a cup of water on the back of the stove for one hour, then strain. When cold, put a few drops on any bait. (Meyer, p. 51)
Time honored garden lore confirms “Happy is he that has the power to gather wisdom from a flower.” Each spring, I look forward with anticipation for the coriander plants to pop up in my garden. And when I first spot them, I think to myself what a wonderful world!
A. Hyiton, William H., The Rodale Herb Book, How to Use, Grow and Buy Natures Miracle Plants, Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA (1974) p. 416.
B. Diederichsen, Axel, Coriander - Coriandrum Sativum L., International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome (1996) p. 22.
C. Hanson, Michael, “Michigan Pollinators,” The Michigan Landscape Magazine (August 2009) p. 25.
D. North American Pollination Protection website: http:// www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/ plantsanimals/pollinate/. Accessed August 30, 2016.
E. Meyer Joseph E., The Herb Doctor & Medicine Man: A Collection of Valuable Medicinal Formulae & Guide to the Manufacture of Botanical Medicines, Indiana Botanical Garden, Hammond, IN (1922) p. 51.
Clarkson Rosetta E., Magic Gardens: A Modern Chronicle of Herbs and Savory Seeds, Macmillan, New York (1942).
Darke, Rick and Tallamy, Douglas W., The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, Timber Press, Portland, OR (2014).
Gibbs, Jay; Bennett, Ashley; Isaacs, Rufus and Landis, Joy, Bees of the Great Lakes Region and Wildflowers to Support Them, Michigan State University Extension Bulletin, E3282., (2015).
Tucker, Arthur O. and DeBaggio, Thomas, The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference To Herbs of Favor and Fragrance, Timber Press, Portland, OR, (2009).
The GreenBridges Initiative, the Herb Society of America A program for gardeners interested in native herb conservation and discovering ways to incorporate native herbs into their yards and neighborhoods. Invasive plants, ecosystem function, and reputable sources for native herbs are among the key concepts covered in program materials. www.herbsociety.org .
YardMap Project, Cornell Lab of Ornithology YardMap is a citizen science project designed to help you work together with your neighbors to create nature-friendly regional landscapes. One of the best citizen science projects in the United States. Extensive ecoregion planting references and resources. www.yardmap. org or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Ecosystem Services Fact Sheets Fact sheets developed for public dissemination on the general topic of ecosystem services, and one for each service covered in the Tool Kits. The fact sheets can be downloaded and distributed at local gardening events. http://www. esa.org/ecoservices/comm/body.comm. fact.ecos.html .
Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s timeCoriander, tested patterns and strategies. Their goal is to create products, processes, and policies-new ways of living-that are welladapted to life on earth over the long haul. www. asknature.org .
Pollinator Partnership/North American Pollinator Protection Campaign Information for gardeners, educators and resource managers to encourage the health of resident and migratory pollinator animals. Extensive planting references and resources based on Bailey’s Ecoregions of the United States. www.pollinator. org.
An online resource devoted to insect, spiders and their kin, with identification
help and information. For the United States and Canada. www.bugguide.net.
Olympia Beekeeper Association, BeeFriendly with Winnie-the Pooh The Olympia Beekeeper Association worked with Egmont Publishing to create this 2015 special bee-friendly guide (pdf) for families inspired by Winnie the Pooh and Friends. Filled with fun, upbeat educational materials. Retrieved from www.friendsofthehoneybee.com .