Cilantro vs Parsley in Butte

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

Italian flat leaf parsley growing in our high tunnel in August.
Italian flat leaf parsley growing in our
high tunnel in August. Photo: NCAT

I love using fresh herbs in my cooking. In fact, all I tend to grow at my house now are herbs. This is because they are easy to maintain and I can get multiple cuttings off a plant. If done right, you can yield from the same plant all year long. If plants begin to bolt or flower, I simply cut them back and let them restart. However, for many years I have struggled with growing cilantro here in Butte, Montana. I have always viewed parsley and cilantro to be very similar. I even grow them together in a designated herb bed, though they never grow the same. During peak summer months, the cilantro typically bolts quickly. This develops leaves that are thin and separated, which are not ideal as a garnish, and carries a pungent flavor. Some have described the flavor as "soapy." On the other hand, parsley does not flower in the summer heat. Italian flat-leaf varieties of parsley not only make great garnishes, but also have a palatable texture and flavor. Though both herbs are tolerant to mild frosts and do well in cool temperatures, parsley can manage a wider range of temperatures.

As I was trying to understand why the two herbs were performing so much differently, I began doing a little research. Though they both belong to the Apiaceae family, Coriandrum sativum (cilantro) is an annual herb, while Petroselinum crispum (parsley) is a biennial herb. This explains why the parsley will not flower in the heat and also why it will bolt so quickly. Cilantro will grow very well here in the spring and fall seasons without bolting. One thing to be wary of is germinating cilantro in soil temperatures below 65 degrees. Start your plants indoors and transplant when the weather finally shapes up a bit. This is less of an issue for fall planting. You should be able to direct seed for a fall crop. If growing in the peak summer months, It would be wise to plant it in a shadier location.

Flowering cilantro growing in our high tunnel in August.
Flowering cilantro growing in our
high tunnel in August. Photo: NCAT

Parsley overwinters well in Butte. It is one of very few crops I have had success with overwintering. It can be seeded in October for an early crop, or seeded after the snowmelt. Though it is not ideal, parsley seems to germinate in temperatures below 65 degrees. If your parsley begins to get leggy, simply cut it back. One thing I have found is that parsley needs a generous amount of water during the summer. Italian flat leaf parsley makes a great marketable herb for this region and is sure to please.

Now obviously cilantro and parsley are not completely interchangeable in the culinary world, but sometimes it can be appropriate. That soapy flavor that some taste from cilantro leaves is usually paired with strong citrus. Parsley, however, has a much milder flavor that can go well with much more earthy flavors. In most places across the world, cilantro is grown for its seed, which can be ground into a spice. In the United States, this spice is referred to as coriander; however, across the world coriander refers to the plant itself. The coriander seed has a nutty and spicy flavor without the apparent soapy notes. This being said, perhaps there is nothing wrong with the cilantro we have grown. If you are more creative with the ways to use bolted cilantro, then it can be excellent crop for your garden.

There are many ways to use a bolted cilantro plant. The thin separated leaves can be used lightly as a garnish to a dish, much like we use microgreens and microherbs. The white flowers hold a little of that nutty flavor and can also be used as a sophisticated garnish. You can cut at the base of the stem and make an herb bundle to flavor soups or stews. Don't drop it into boiling water. This tends to bring out that strong soapy flavor that can be off-putting. Simply add the herb bundle to a low simmering broth or stew for about 15-20 minutes and then remove. One last tip I have for using bolted cilantro is to pull it up! The roots pack strong flavor and can be crushed and wrapped around a good cut of meat as a marinade. In the end, make use of what you have and don’t let those flavors go to waste.

Posted on: September 3rd, 2019