Papalo in the garden: A wild 'summer cilantro'
Thanks to its tolerance for heat, this garden green is sometimes called "summer cilantro." Bolivian coriander is another name, although it’s not at all related to that herb. No, this plant -- papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) -- is actually part of the daisy family and originated in South America, predating the arrival of Asian coriander by thousands of years.
Papalo is a type of quelite, the wild greens of Meso-America, and it's popular among the Quechua of Bolivia as well as the people of southern Mexico. In restaurants in Puebla state, it’s common to find a sprig of papalo stuck in a vase on the table, next to the salt, pepper and salsas -- ready to be added raw to soups, tacos, tortas or beans.
“They don’t eat it there because it smells too strong,” he said. But Barrera? He’s a convert. “I like the flavor a lot.”
Papalo, like cilantro, is an acquired taste for some. Its added raw to dishes, at the last minute, lending a piquant flavor that hints of cilantro, arugula, cucumber and citrus. It's used with fresh papaya and in fish dishes, salsas and guacamole, but it has a stronger bouquet than true cilantro -- partly why when used in place of cilantro, cooks often use only about one-third as much.
The combination of a unique taste and hardiness in heat has made it a favorite among many, including chefs. According to the magazine Herb Companion, Alice Waters became a fan more than a dozen years ago when she encountered the leaf at an American Institute of Wine and Food festival. She bought all the seeds she could find for the Chez Panisse garden.
In the garden, papalo likes full sun, good drainage and a bit of room, although it does well in containers. It can typically get 4 to 5 feet high, depending on the variety. Small holes may appear in the mature leaves; what looks like insect damage actually are porous oil glands where the aromatic oils vaporize. Seeds are available online from www.egardenseed.com and www.sandmountainherbs.com.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Photos: Ann Summa