Papalo: Grow A Fantastic Cilantro Substitute

Papalo (or papaloquelite) is a heat-loving cilantro alternative you should be growing in your summer garden.

A gorgeous example of the prolific papaloquelite

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Are you looking for a good substitute for cilantro? Because cilantro is prone to bolt in the summer, it can be frustrating to grow – and it’s the season we want to grow it for our salsa! I have an alternative for you: papalo herb (Porophyllum ruderale).

Although lesser-known, it’s an easy to grow herb that boasts a strong, vibrant flavor. It reminds me of a mixture of nasturtium flowers, lime, and our beloved cilantro. You’ll love papalo, and you should grow it in your summer garden!

Good Products for Growing Papalo:

Quick Care Guide

A gorgeous example of the prolific papaloquelite
A gorgeous example of the prolific papaloquelite. source
Common Name(s)Papalo, papaloquelite, Bolivian coriander, yerba porosa
Scientific NamePorophyllum ruderale
Days to HarvestHarvest ongoing as-needed
LightFull sun to part shade
WaterAverage
SoilAverage to fertile
FertilizerTop-dress with 1″ compost per year
PestsThought to be a pest-repellent
DiseasesNo known disease susceptibility

All About Papalo

The origins of papalo (known botanically as Porophyllum ruderale) can be traced back to Mexico, Central America, and South America, where it is prized as a heat-loving alternative to cilantro and is used in all sorts of Mexican food, typically coupled with lime juice. It is known by many names, but you may find it at Mexican markets under the names quilquina (also spelled quirquiña), yerba porosa, papaloquelite and broadleaf.

The papalo herb belongs to the family of informal quelites that entails semi-wild greens grown in central and South America. These edible greens are rich in vitamins and nutrients. They grow quite well in the wild, making them an exceptionally easy plant to cultivate in your garden. Fully grown, these plants reach up to 5 feet tall.

Flavor wise, I think this aromatic Mexican native is a mixture of the spice of arugula and cilantro, and a bit of rue, though papalo is not botanically related to any of these. If you don’t like the vibrant flavor, pick the younger leaves — the flavor is more mild. This makes it perfect for fish dishes and other subtly flavor meats. It’s also used in typical mexican salsas.

The herbaceous annual plant known as the papalo herb is available in two main varieties: broadleaf and narrow-leaf. As you might imagine, these plants with bluish green leaves are distinguished by the size of their leaves, with broadleaf papalo being far more common. Most find the narrow-leaf variety and acquired taste that is quite soapy and even more pungent than a strong cilantro.

The name “papalo” originates from the Nahuatl word for butterfly, and “papaloquelite” means butterfly leaf. Papalo flowers offer nectar to the butterflies, bees and other beneficial pollinators. Papalo seeds are quite similar to dandelion seeds that have a stalk and umbrella to help them fly away in the wind and germinate elsewhere.

The herb has been used medicinally among the Quechua people and in many cultures to lower blood pressure, improve digestion, and reduce swelling of injuries. While these statements don’t have a lot of medical research to back them up, you can safely use the herb in cooking, especially for those who love cilantro flavor. However, the medicinal use of the plant dates back to the Azteca era.

Papalo Herb Care

A papalo plant in early September, still growing strong
A papalo plant in early September, still growing strong. Source: nesson-marshall

Here are some of the basic foundations for growing and caring for papalo. Give your plant these, and you’ll be growing papalo in no time.

Light and Temperature

Papalo thrives on light and heat, which makes sense due to its roots in Mexico. Plant it in full sun and watch it absolutely explode with delicious growth. Some partial shade is fine, but heat and sun are important for healthy growth.

Papalo thrives in USDA zones 4 through 9. Because the plant is an annual that prefers heat to cold, it will die back in winter. However, it’s an avid self-sower and will return in spring from overwintered seeds.

Water and Humidity

Water when the soil is somewhat dry. It doesn’t need a ton of water, so be sure that your soil mix doesn’t hold onto too much water and just keep a watchful eye on soil moisture. I like a deep, infrequent water for my papaloquelite. Once your plant is established, it will be drought-tolerant. Therefore, don’t bog it down with water.

Soil

This isn’t a picky plant, so soil isn’t a huge deal. It just needs to be well-draining so there’s no standing water after a heavy summer rain. Poor soils are appropriate, and a pH of 5.8 to 8.5 is ideal. If you’re growing your papalo in a garden bed, simply plant it in well-drained soil and let it get established.

Papalo Fertilizer

You really don’t need to fertilize this herb. It’ll grow well without anything extra, provided you’re using a high-quality potting soil. If you must, amend with compost once per season or add a bit of slow-release organic fertilizer.

Papalo Herb Propagation

The best and easiest way to propagate is by seed. Direct sow in May or later, when the soil temperatures are consistently 75°F or slightly above. If you’re transplanting papalo seedlings, start seeds indoors in a humidity dome with a heating element, and then transplant them out into the garden after they’re about 6″ tall.

When starting your plant from papalo seeds, make sure the seed hull is intact. Germination drops to 10% if it’s damaged.

Pruning Papalo

Pinch the top growth to promote bushiness (and make sure to use those trimmings in the kitchen)! If you let it grow without pruning, it’ll become very floppy. For this reason, some growers plant many plants of papalo next to each other so they all support each other a bit.

Harvesting and Storing

Harvesting and storing papalo herb is pretty darn easy
Harvesting and storing papalo herb is pretty darn easy

Now that you’ve done all the work to care for this easy-going herb, you get to reap the rewards. Let’s discuss harvesting and storing papalo.

Harvesting Papalo Herb

Harvesting papalo is dead-simple. It’s a classic “cut and come again” herb, so the same rules of harvesting would apply as would apply to basil or any other classic herb.

Simply snip of fresh papalo leaves as-needed, preferring to take the older leaves if you want a more pungent flavor, and the younger growth if you want a milder flavor. Harvesting the young shoots should also promote bushiness, as you’re pruning the growing tips and forcing lateral growth.

Storing Papalo

Just like cilantro, papalo should be used as quickly as possible. You can wrap harvested stems of this regional type of Mexican herb in a damp paper towel and place it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use it within a few days. You can also store it cut side down in water to keep it fresh as you use it over the course of a few days. Change the water if any rotted plant parts fall in.

Troubleshooting

You probably won’t have many issues to face when you’re growing papalo. However, let’s discuss a few that might arise.

Growing Problems

Papalo is temperature-sensitive. While it grows well in hot months, you have to keep an eye on it when winter begins and temperatures start to drop. Give it a hard-prune to a few inches above soil surface to avoid it dying to frost.

Be careful not to overwater. It’s more or less the only mistake you can make with this plant, allowing rot or fungal issues to take root.

Pests

Pest problems are uncommon for papalo herb. The plant itself is a natural insect repellent, so you don’t have to worry about it getting decimated by pests.

Diseases

It also seems to be resistant to diseases, making it an incredibly low-frustration herb to grow!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can papalo plant be eaten fresh? 

A: Totally! You can harvest, wash, and tear the leaves to mix into a salad, or mince and add as a fresh seasoning to taco night if you want. You can also cook it though, which is my preference.

Q: Does papalo plant bloom?

A: If you let your plant bolt, you’ll notice purplish brownish green bursts of flowers at the ends of the branches. They’re quite beautiful, but I don’t find the smell too appealing, so I try to avoid letting my papalo bolt.

Q: Should I fertilize papalo plant?

A: It’s not mandatory by any means, but you can add an inch of compost as a top-dress, or use a granular slow-release organic fertilizer if you want to boost growth.

Q: What is papalo called in English?

A: It’s known commonly in English as summer cilantro.

Q: Is papalo the same as cilantro?

A: They are two different plants. However, papalo is an excellent Mexican herb that is used as a cilantro alternative for hot climates as it has a flavor reminiscent of cilantro.

Q: When should I start papalo?

A: You want to direct sow in May or later, or start seeds indoors a few weeks before you transplant in May.

Q: Where is papalo native to?

A: It’s a native plant in Mexico and parts of Central and South America. It’s commonly grown in the American southwest.

Q: How do you store papalo?

A: Store it in the refrigerator either in water or in a plastic bag, wrapped in a damp paper towel.

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