Papalo is a bold herb that loves the heat

Story and Photography by Cindy Shapton

Tired of running out to the garden to get some fresh cilantro for your salsa only to find it has bolted in the heat of summer?  You may want to plant papalo (PAH-pa-low) next spring. Referred to as summer cilantro, papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) loves the heat of our Southern climate and rewards the gardener with a 4-6-foot tall herb plant. 

I first met papalo at the Yakima, Washington, farmers’ market a few years back. I was drawn to this herb with its strong cilantro-like aroma and flavor. I bought a carne asada taco with finely cut papalo leaves served on the top and it was love at first bite.

Papalo is commonly known as summer cilantro and a great substitute when the cilantro has bolted in the first heat wave of the summer season.

Strong and complex in flavor, you can actually see the oil glands on the butterfly-shaped leaves (papalo is also called papaloquelite, which means butterfly leaf). To me, it tastes like cilantro on steroids with nutty citrus undertones. Native to South America, it is a persistent plant that volunteers in fields and is rarely planted, just happily harvested. In warmer climates, it is a perennial, but here in our part of the South, it is a tender annual, gone with the first frost. 

People who love cilantro usually love the aroma, those who dislike cilantro … well it’s not for everyone.

In the garden, papalo is a great neighbor, attracting pollinators and repelling bad bugs that are easily confused by strong aromas.

One plant is enough for the entire neighborhood, but I plant five or six each year in my kitchen garden in various areas in hopes that their scent will work in my favor in the war on squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and the like.

If you look closely, you can see the oil glands in the leaves.

Here are a few pointers for growing and using this unique herb:

• How to start: I start my plants from seed about six weeks before our last frost outside in a clear 1-gallon milk or water jug. (Be sure to get the broadleaf variety.) I transplant into the garden after all danger of frost has passed and the nights are consistently warm. Once the plant is established, cuttings can be taken and simply pushed into the soil or in a container. I found this out when my dog broke off a huge branch chasing a rabbit. I stuck the broken branch into a nearby container where it took root and grew beautifully.

• Where to plant: A sunny spot in the garden where it has room to grow and soil drainage is good. If you don’t have a garden, try it in a large container. I add plenty of compost to the soil before planting and water during dry spells. Like most herbs, no fertilizer is needed. 

• Harvest: Start harvesting leaves once plant reaches 6-8 inches tall. The flavor is a bit milder early on and cutting will produce a bushier plant. As the plant ages, the flavor gets a bit stronger and more complex. 

• Saving seeds: Save seeds in the fall when pods appear and you notice a bit of fluff on the tip, like dandelions, but the shape more like a closed up marigold. Once the seed heads are dry, carefully separate seeds. This procedure should give you better germination rates next spring. I put the seeds (with fluff) in a plastic bag and store in cool, dark place, like the refrigerator or freezer.

The flowers are not showy and easy to miss, but the seed heads are pretty with their little puffy tops.

• How to use: Fresh is best: Some Mexican restaurants even keep a little bouquet of papalo on the table so people can help themselves to a couple of leaves, which they tear into pieces and add to their food. When using papalo in place of cilantro, less is more since it has a stronger flavor. Start with about one-third as much then adjust to your taste. Add this aromatic herb at the end to soups (cold or hot), guacamole, salsa or pico de gallo, salads, sautéed greens, and even sandwiches. I don’t usually cook papalo, but I really like to use it in my salsa; the flavor comes through much better than cilantro, even though it has simmered. I also like to mix a few sprigs into cut flower arrangements to keep folks guessing. People who love cilantro usually love the aroma, those who dislike cilantro … well it’s not for everyone.

Allow mature seed heads to dry and then carefully pull them apart so as to not injure or separate the little umbrella from the seed itself.

This plant always gets oohs and aahs from visitors to my garden and a chance for me to brag on its ability to step in for cilantro when the weather gets too hot to handle.

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