By: Liz Baessler
Vietnamese cilantro is a plant that’s native to Southeast Asia, where its leaves are a very popular culinary ingredient. It has a taste similar to the cilantro normally grown in America, with the added bonus of being able to thrive in the summer heat. Keep reading to learn more about growing Vietnamese cilantro herbs.
Vietnamese Coriander vs. Cilantro
The Vietnamese cilantro plant (Persicaria odorata syn. Polygonum odoratum) is also frequently called Cambodian mint, Vietnamese coriander, and Rau Ram. It’s not the same thing as the cilantro usually eaten in Western cuisine, but it is similar.
In Southeast Asian cooking, it’s actually more often used in the place of peppermint. It has a very strong, smoky flavor and, because of its strength, should be used in quantities about half that of cilantro.
The biggest benefit to growing Vietnamese cilantro over “regular” cilantro is its ability to take the summer heat. If your summers are at all hot, you’re likely to have trouble growing cilantro and keeping it from bolting. Vietnamese cilantro, on the other hand, loves hot weather and will grow straight through the summer.
Growing Vietnamese Cilantro in Gardens
The Vietnamese cilantro plant is so used to hot weather, in fact, that you might have trouble keeping it going outside of a tropical environment. It’s necessary to keep its soil moist at all times – allow it to dry out and it will wilt almost immediately.
It’s a low, creeping plant that will spread into groundcover if given enough time. It can’t handle temperatures below freezing, but if grown in a pot and brought inside under bright light for the winter, it can last for many seasons.
It grows best in filtered sunlight, but it can also handle bright sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. It prefers a sheltered spot protected from the elements and lots of water.
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Victory Garden: Grow your own Bay Area herb garden
Many of us have spent the long months of quarantine learning to bake bread, cook comforting stews and grow Victory Gardens. And there’s one thing that can enhance all three of those pursuits: fresh herbs.
No matter what the size — a few pots in a sunny kitchen window, a corner of your vegetable plot or a grand, stand-alone swath — creating an herb garden can be incredibly satisfying. All you need is a little guidance and a smidge of imagination.
A recent [email protected] gardening webinar — the first of five we have planned — featured Rose Loveall, co-owner and founder of Vacaville’s Morningsun Herb Farm, and Florence Nishida, a Los Angeles County Master Gardener and the founder of LA Green Grounds, sharing their best tips for growing herbs garden. But if you missed it, don’t worry. Here’s the lowdown.
So many herbs, so little time
There is some work to be done before planting, of course, but let’s start with the fun stuff — thinking about all the beautiful herbs that will soon be growing in our gardens, patios and kitchen windows.
There are thousands of herbs to choose from, and the variety can be overwhelming. Obviously, you’ll want to grow things you know you like and will use, but Loveall and Nishida suggest you experiment, too.
Basil, thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary are herb garden staples, but there are varietals of each with different flavors and uses. Thai basil, Genovese basil and purple basil are just the tip of the herbaceous iceberg. You can plant several varieties or sample them first to see if you like the way they taste.
Planting hard-to-find herbs means you won’t have to resort to frantic supermarket searches ever again. Buy that herb once at the market, Nishida says, place some stems in water so they grow roots, then transplant them into your garden.
Think about how you use herbs — for culinary, therapeutic or decorative use, for example — matters, too. If you’re into mixology, Loveall says, you’re going to need some mint for your mojitos. Just don’t grow mint in the ground or even near it. It spreads rapidly and can quickly take over your garden or yard. Mint should be grown in a container and placed on a deck, patio or similar spot where it can’t send out raiding parties.
Most herbs are planted in the spring, but there are many that can be grown in the fall and winter, i.e., right now. Loveall recommends sage, rosemary, oregano, lavender, lemongrass and cilantro. Nishida adds scallions and onions to that list.
The cilantro conundrum
If your cilantro dreams perished this summer, there’s a reason for that. Cilantro doesn’t grow in the hotter months, so planting in the fall, winter or early spring is a necessity.
The herb, so popular in Mexican and Thai cuisine, is easy to grow in full sun, but seed germination can be a bit tricky. Loveall recommends soaking the seed before sowing them Nishida says you can carefully crush the outer covering of the seed to improve the odds of germination.
Cilantro should be planted in the fall, winter or early spring. The plant does not do well in the heat of summer. (Getty Images)
Once established, cilantro will happily reseed itself, just don’t expect to have any fresh cilantro in July and August. The plant will not cooperate, Loveall says. Instead, consider adding Vietnamese coriander to your garden. It grows well in the summer, and its taste is similar to cilantro, which is a type of coriander.
Indoor herb gardens
You can certainly grow herbs indoors, as long as you’re aware of a few potential pitfalls.
You’ll need a sunny window or a grow light, and you’ll need to be careful with watering. In the winter, when indoor herb gardens are the most appealing, the heat in the house can dry out the herbs, which often leads us to overcompensate by giving them too much water.
You can have a lovely window herb garden, however, if you pay close attention to it and its needs.
While some herbs can grow in shade, the majority require at least six hours a day of full sun. Loveall and Nishida recommend scoping out the sunniest spots available for either an in-ground or container garden.
Next, prepare your beds and containers. Most Bay Area soils are heavy clay. Work compost into the soil to help lighten the clay, Loveall says, and improve the drainage. Herbs don’t like sitting in water. Don’t skimp on the compost — use 4 to 6 inches.
When planting herbs, choose a spot that gets six hours of full sunlight each day — or opt for a grow light if your herb garden is indoors. (Getty Images)
If you’re planting in the ground, do so in mounds that will help water run off and away from the plant to prevent soggy conditions. In containers, choose a well-draining potting soil. Next, cover the beds with mulch to help moderate soil temperatures.
You’ll need to pay careful attention to your watering. Most perennial herbs — think oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavender — are Mediterranean and can tolerate dryer conditions. Annuals, like chervil, may need more water, Nishida and Loveall say. When herb gardens fail, it’s because you overwatered. (Or planted cilantro in July.)
Regardless of their water requirements, all herbs benefit from being watered deeply and infrequently. By watering deeply, you force the roots to go deep, which makes for a healthier, more drought-resistant plant.
Most herbs require very little fertilizer. For perennials, fertilizing once a year with a slow-release, organic fertilizer is sufficient. For annuals, fertilizing every two weeks during the season will keep them healthy. Don’t over-fertilize. It makes the plant grow quickly, Nishida says, resulting in leggy plants that are difficult to manage and require frequent pruning.
Harvesting those herbs
Harvest your herbs regularly. Snip off basil for that Margherita pizza or mint for a mojito — dry your herbs for later use.
Nothing makes you feel better than a hot cup of lemon verbena tea in the winter, Loveall says, but by then, the herb isn’t growing. By drying and storing the verbena, you can still indulge.
Most herbs are easy to dry. Nishida just lays her harvest on a tray in her dining room, but you also can bundle the herbs and hang them in an airy spot. There are some expensive devices out there that let the air circulate under the herbs but, Loveall notes, a window screen, laid out in the shade, will do the same thing.
Harvest fresh oregano to add flavor to marinara sauce and other Italian favorites. Or dry the leaves to use later, crumbled over a Greek salad. (Getty Images)
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
This sauce can be used to brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty, spicy and authenticity to your dish -- from omelets, to salad dressing or drizzled on a sandwich. This sauce brings the prefect amount of sour, sweet, salty spicy and authentic to your dish.
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons local
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1 or 2 small Thai chiles, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 handful Vietnamese coriander leaves, finely chopped
Mix the lime juice, honey and 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl and stir. Taste and adjust the flavors if necessary to balance out the sweet and sour. Add the fish sauce, garlic and chiles. Taste again and adjust the flavors to your liking, balancing out the sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Cover and set aside at room temperature until needed, up to 24 hours. Just before serving, mix in the mint and Vietnamese cilantro.
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Almost all herbs bloom or they would be “failures as plants,” Nishida says. Once a plant goes into full bloom and starts producing seed — that’s called bolting — the taste and quality of the herb changes. In annuals, it indicates the end of the plant’s life. Pinching blooms along with a couple of the topmost leaves will extend the life and productivity of the plant, but eventually nature will overtake the pinching.
Learn more about growing and using herbs
Upcoming gardening webinars
The Bay Area News Group’s [email protected] webinar series includes five gardening episodes. Watch a video of the first one, Growing Herbs, and sign up for others as the dates draw near at mercurynews.com/events. Gardening 101 is slated for Jan. 14, followed by Small Space Gardening on March 11, Gardening with Wildlife on May 6, and What Went Wrong? on July 15.
You Grow Girl
Growing herbs as cuttings is one quick and cost effective way that I multiply some of my herb crops — particularly basil — midway into the growing season. This way I don’t have to grow as much from seed, and should I purchase a particular variety, I only need purchase one transplant.
Not all cuttings will take root in water. I have instructions for both water and soil rooting over here. However, most basil varieties and all mints have shown themselves to be very amenable to this easy method.
Through the years I have experimented with many other herbs just to see how they will respond. Earlier this season I purchased a tray of fresh culantro (Eryngium foetid) from an Asian supermarket in Chinatown. Culantro aka Mexican coriander aka chadon beni, is an edible herb within the genus Eryngium aka sea holly that tastes very much like cilantro, but with a more pungent, intense flavour. It is a compact and tough plant with serrated leaves and a spiny flower stalk. It is often used just like or in place of cilantro in hot, tropical countries where cilantro doesn’t last long in the heat. For this reason it often appears in Vietnamese, Latin American, and Caribbean cooking. When we visited Saint Lucia some years ago, we did a tour on part of an old plantation that was once the slave quarters. I was surprised to discover lots of little culantro plants growing wild there.
Unfortunately, the tray of culantro got shoved deep into my fridge and forgotten about until I found it, just in the nick of time, the outer leaves all turned to mush with just the inner rosette viable. As I pulled away the rotten leaves, I noticed that this was not just a pile of leaves — they were plants with crowns still intact. Just for kicks I tossed the crowns into water thinking that they’d rot in the water and amazingly they all made roots!
Culantro is an unusual herb that is hard to come by as a plant. I have often purchased it at specialty herb shops. Now I know I can buy a tray of plants for just a few dollars and root them myself. They key is to find the healthiest, freshest herb in the store that still have the crown intact. Individual leaves won’t root.
Culantro is not as widely available as cilantro, particularly outside the Caribbean and Latin America. You'll have better luck finding it at international markets. Check with your market's produce manager if you do not see any on the shelves with other fresh herbs.
Culantro is a rather easy herb to grow, so you might consider that option as well. Seeds are readily available and if you want to collect your own, let the flowers go to seed at the end of the second year (remember, it's a biennial). Plant those seeds and, if you're lucky, you can keep propagating culantro for years using this routine.
Cilantro Plant Care
Feed the cilantro bimonthly with any half strength nitrogen-rich fertilizer to promote the foliage growth. You don’t need to fertilize your cilantro plants much if you side dress them with compost or aged manure. Also, the application of fish emulsion is recommended.
Inspect your cilantro plants every day to see if the flowers are appearing, deadhead them regularly to promote the production of leaves. However, you can leave them if you want your plants to seed.
Problem With Coriander/Cilantro:
The recurring problem with cilantro is bolting.
The plant eventually goes to seed but a lot earlier in hot weather. Flowers start to appear quickly, then giving way to seed and after seeding the plant dies.
The best solution for this problem is to sow seeds successively, plant seeds every other week to get a regular harvest. Also, once the plant starts to bolt pinch the top of it to slow down the process.
Pests And Diseases
In pests, look out for aphids. Mildew is the most common disease that kills this herb, more consistently occurs in humid warm weather.
To prevent powdery mildew, keep distance between the plants, provide good air circulation and avoid overhead watering, wetting the leaves also promote the growth of many other fungal infections.
You can start to harvest young cilantro leaves too early, about 3-4 weeks after sowing seeds. Leaves can be picked from the plant when they have reached 3-6 inches in length.
If you want to harvest the entire plant you should wait at least 45-70 days. Cutting the entire plant at soil level or 2 inches above the crown.