Have you ever been tempted by an article or blog post, or maybe a seed collection, suggesting that you grow a salsa garden? Tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro are the usual recommendations for growing and making your own salsa. But the timing for this type of garden can be tricky. Tomatoes and peppers mature in the summertime. Onions planted in the early spring are ready about the same time, or can be stored for use. Garlic should have been planted the previous fall, but if you got that done you’re all set. But cilantro—that’s where salsa gardeners get frustrated.
Cilantro is a cool-weather herb; in summer’s heat, it bolts and goes to flower, and then produces seeds (which we call coriander). By the time your tomatoes are ripe, cilantro planted in spring is done. You can get around this to some extent by choosing a slow-bolting variety of cilantro and planting it every few weeks, but those summer-planted succession crops have spotty germination and bolt really fast.
Or you could try another herb with a similar flavor that likes growing in heat. I suggest papalo.
Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) is an herb in the aster family native to Central and South America and the U.S. Southwest. It has many names, including Bolivian coriander, quillquiña, yerba porosa, killi, tepegua, and pápaloquelite. The quelite ending on the last puts papalo into a category of wild herbs gathered and used for seasoning in Mexican cooking. The flavor is not exactly like cilantro, but close enough that it works as an alternative. After trying it, maybe you’ll prefer papalo!
Cilantro, after all, is not native to the Americas; it’s an import that originated somewhere in Asia, Africa, and/or Europe. It’s been assimilated into the cuisine of Mexico and other countries, and it’s easy to find in North American supermarkets—you know, it’s the one next to the parsley (and a close relative). And it’s a great herb to grow, both as a two-for-one flavor harvest and (during the flowering stage) a great attractor for small insects like predatory wasps that help rid your garden of undesirable insects.
But make room for papalo, too, for those summer salsas. It’s easy to grow, and provides an ample harvest of leaves—sometimes a little too ample, so don’t worry about growing too many plants. It gets tall, up to 5 feet if you don’t keep up with harvesting, so don’t make the mistake I did last summer and let it shadow your other herbs. It can hold its own near the tomatoes.
You might be able to find transplants in garden centers with a big herb selection (call first). Seeds are widely available online and in the more extensive catalogs. If you want a head start, you can sow the seeds indoors about the same time as tomatoes or any time after that, or just start them outdoors when the soil has warmed. The plants will not tolerate cold temperatures, so keep them indoors until there’s no chance of frost.
Papalo flowers apparently resemble dandelions. My plants never flowered, probably because I kept chopping off the tops. The leaves are flat, broad, and have weird little bumps which are apparently scent-producing glands (I will let the botanists out there comment on what the precise structure is).
Use papalo as you would cilantro, being careful not to overdo it until you get used to the flavor. Never cook papalo; use it raw or throw it in at the very end of cooking. This blog post has some recipes for using papalo in salsa, and also in a pesto that I made a lot of last summer.
Please share in the comments if you have experience with growing papalo or using it in recipes! I’m a beginner with this herb, but I plan to have more plants this year.
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener