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What to plant now: Cilantro, the Goldilocks of the garden, finds L.A. winter weather just right

December 14, 2009 |  5:04 am

CIlantro2 Some liken its fragrance to stinkbug and its flavor to soap. Even so, Coriandrum sativum, also known as cilantro or coriander, is revered by cooks from Mexico to Malaysia. English-speakers call the leaves cilantro or Chinese parsley. The “seed” (actually a fruit housing two aromatic seeds) is called coriander. I love its scent and its taste, and now is a great time to plant some.

Cilantro isn’t hard to grow, given regular water and a couple of light feedings. But timing is critical. Like Goldilocks in a garden, this pretty little annual likes its weather just right. Plants flourish at temperatures between 50 and 85 degrees. At higher temperatures -- even for a day -- cilantro "bolts." Leaf growth slows, then stops, and up shoots a grand bouquet of tiny white or pale pink flowers in flat-topped clusters just right for insect landings. Cilantro flowers are such bug magnets that commercial farmers use it to attract adult hoverflies, lacewings and ladybugs that feast on pollen and nectar.

Always start cilantro from seed (not nursery seedlings),sown directly into the garden. Young plants quickly form taproots and don’t like being moved. For a continuous supply of fresh leaves, re-sow every two to three weeks into April.

Seed are easy to find in nurseries and online. Look for slow-bolt (heat-resistant) varieties. Renee's Garden carries a slow-bolt strain. Johnny’s sells Santo, a preferred winter crop of California farmers, and Calypso, touted as even more heat-resistant, though it's on back-order until January. Kitagawa sells Leisure, an Asian variety for whole-plant harvest. (Coriander root is delicious.)

Thick-coated cilantro seeds are notoriously slow to germinate. Have faith. The plant's life span may be brief, perhaps four to six weeks, but no part need be wasted. The flowers are edible, and once they fade, you can let plants and seed heads dry until crisp. Harvest the seed for use in the kitchen (I add one crushed seed to each cup of coffee grounds) and store some for planting next fall.

-- Lili Singer

Photo credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times