What is Cilantro?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Cilantro, or Chinese parsley, is the name given to the leaves of the coriander plant (Coriandrum sativum), while both the plant and the seed-like fruit are traditionally called coriander. This is changing, as many people who use the herb may be unaware that the plant yields another spice and refer to the entire plant as cilantro. Culantro, which refers to a different herb altogether, is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to coriander leaves. The coriander plant is in the same family, Apiaceae, as anise, fennel, dill, caraway, and cumin.

Harissa often includes coriander.
Harissa often includes coriander.

Initially, the coriander plant has leaves like parsley, to which it is related. When the plant bolts, producing a stalk on which flowers will grow, the leaves it produces are very different in nature and no longer as desirable. As a result, two different strains have been developed — plants that are slow-bolting and produce better leaves, and plants that are encouraged to bolt to produce flowers and fruit. When it does bloom, the plant has small white or pink flowers, and when grown for the spice coriander, it grows to an average height of 2 feet (60 cm), though it can get bigger.

Fresh Chinese parsley.
Fresh Chinese parsley.

The plant is a hardy annual that does not transplant well because of its taproot. When growing it for cilantro, one way of dealing with its tendency to bolt it to use succession planting and protect it from extreme heat. Also, if a gardener is growing the plant for its leaves, the sudden production of a long, tall stalk indicates the plant's intent to flower.

Coriander seeds. Cilantro is the leaves of the coriander plant.
Coriander seeds. Cilantro is the leaves of the coriander plant.

Cilantro is used as a garnish in Southeast Asian food, and as an ingredient of Thai green curry paste. In Mexico, it is used in salsa and guacamole. When used in cooking, the leaves should be added in the last few minutes so they don't lose their flavor.

Cilantro is used in guacamole.
Cilantro is used in guacamole.

Some people suggest pulling up the whole plant by the roots when bolting becomes imminent, but it doesn't stay fresh very long or dry well, so freezing is the best option. Growers can pack clean, dry leaves into ice cube trays, cover them with water, then freeze them, sealing the cubes in plastic bags when they're ready. Cooks can also make a sort of pesto by grinding up the leaves with garlic and a touch of salt, the wrapping the paste well and freezing it.

Fresh cilantro is a common ingredient in robust tomato salsas.
Fresh cilantro is a common ingredient in robust tomato salsas.

The coriander plant was grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The leaves are an ingredient in the bitter herbs or maror that are a traditional part of the Passover meal.

Fresh cilantro is often sprinkled on spicy Indian curries as a garnish.
Fresh cilantro is often sprinkled on spicy Indian curries as a garnish.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@seag47: Nutmeg and mace both come from the same plant!


I had no idea that coriander and cilantro came from the same plant! They don't taste very similar to me. I wonder if there are any other strange combination plants like this out there?


I love eating cilantro dressing on my salads. It's fairly easy to make.

I use olive oil, parsley, garlic, vinegar, lime juice, cilantro, and a dash of sugar and salt. The flavors blend together really well.


@anon191867 – How interesting! My husband must fall into the group of people who can pick up on the vile taste. I certainly can't sense it.

I used cilantro for the first (and last) time a few months ago in a recipe for fajitas. I thought it had a wonderful flavor reminiscent of limes, but my husband said he could not get the taste out of his mouth, and even after I removed the cilantro leaves, he said that all the food was tainted by it.

I was disappointed to discover that I could never use this new-found ingredient in any future recipes. I don't want to ruin any food for him, though.


@obsessedwithloopy – I wish it weren't stored right next to parsley. I once bought some cilantro by mistake, thinking I was getting parsley. I needed it for a recipe, and it ruined the flavor I was going for.


I have found that sliced tomatoes, with Mozzarella cheese and cilantro sprinkled over the tomatoes does a great job as an appetizer and served with tortilla chips are great. Roma tomatoes are best and cheaper.


I think tastes change with age. As a kid and a young adult, I couldn't stand cilantro or coriander (and many green things and other spices). Now I like it in omelets, etc. very much.


I'm not sure how many of us there are, but would like to point out that for some, cilantro tastes remarkably similar to a rusty cast-iron skillet that has been soaking in soapy dishwater for a week. It triggers a strong gag reflex, and renders any food which contains it completely inedible.

I know that's an individual chemical response which (obviously) a lot of people don't share. In fact, I've read that cilantro contains a particular chemical which some people can taste, and others can't, and that those who can taste the chemical find it generally unpleasant. I gather that those of us who can't eat it are in the minority.

There is one particularly popular local Tex-Mex chain where there isn't a single thing on the menu I can eat. Not being picky - I don't care for eggplant, for instance, but if a bunch of my friends wanted to go to a specialty eggplant restaurant, I'd suck it up - but cilantro I cannot physically bring myself to eat. It's just unspeakably, unbelievably vile.


I live in Fourways Johannesburg and have been unable to find cilantro. I need it for a recipe. Please could you advise me where it can be found.


#8 is not right. Dental amalgam is treated as toxic waste everywhere except in our mouths (check OSHA rules on handling it). Ample evidence of its transit into body tissues as elemental and methylated mercury is available for anyone courageous enough to consider the implications of this public health nightmare.

Chelation is a standard medical treatment for heavy metal poisoning and clinical evidence supports cilantro's efficacy as a chelator (Omura, 1996). Do your own research and feel free to ignore bombast from know-it-alls touting the "company line" without evidence.

I will give cilantro a try for detox and see what happens.


No, cilantro can't help with mercury poisoning and you can't get mercury poisoning from fillings. Yes, cilantro has been shown to have antibacterial properties but there is thus far no evidence that it survives passage through the stomach (i.e. this hasn't been really tested so no one really knows).

No, cilantro will have no effect whatsoever on arterial plaque. There are several places on the net that are trying to scam people.

Cilantro is a healthy plant to eat, so if you like it, go for it. But don't believe the chelation crap floating around the internet and it is likely not to have much effect on food poisoning.


Most supermarkets carry cilantro, it is a common item. It should be in the produce section next to or close to parsley.


I have a recipe that calls for cilantro leaves. Can you tell me where i can find this item? I live in the Las Vegas area.


I read that Cilantro eliminates serious high levels of mercury from the body due to amalgam fillings. Anyone else heard this or experienced with this?


I read that cilantro contains compounds that fight of bacteria, including salmonella. Adding cilantro to dishes, just might help the intestines fight off food poisoning.


I have read that cilantro is useful as a toxin remover, and is a component used in oral chelation to remove arterial plaque from the arteries. Is this correct please? Thanks, Dilys


i love cilantro in tacos, soups and other foods! i wonder what the nutritional benefits are of cilantro?

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