Papalo: Grow A Fantastic Cilantro Substitute

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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.

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.

Good Products for Growing Papalo:

Quick Care

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
Germination Time7-21 days at 70°F
Days to HarvestHarvest ongoing as-needed
LightFull sun to part shade
Water:Average
SoilAverage to fertile
FertilizerTop-dress with 1″ compost per year
PestsThought to be a pest-repellent
DiseasesNo known disease susceptibility

The origins of papalo can be traced back to Mexico, where it is prized as a heat-loving alternative to cilantro and is used in all sorts of Mexican dishes. You may find it at Mexican markets under the names quilquina, yerba porosa, papaloquelite and broadleaf.

Papalo 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.

Flavor wise, I think papalo herb is a mixture of the spice of arugula and cilantro, and a bit of rue. If you don’t like the vibrant flavor, pick the younger leaves — the flavor is more mild.

Papalo herb is available in two main varieties: broadleaf and narrow-leaf. As you might imagine, they’re distinguished by the size of their leaves, with broadleaf papalo being far more common. Most find that the narrow-leaf variety tastes quite soapy and even more pungent than a strong cilantro.

Papalo Herb Care

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

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.

Light

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.

Water

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.

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.

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.

Propagation

The best and easiest way to propagate is by seed. Direct sow in May or later. If transplanting, start seeds indoors and then transplant out into the garden after they’re about 6″ tall.

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

Pruning

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 a bunch of papalo next to each other so they all support each other a bit.

Harvesting

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

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 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 taste. Harvesting the young shoots should also promote bushiness, as you’re pruning the growing tips and forcing lateral growth.

Problems

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 and Diseases

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.

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

FAQs

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.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

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