Coriander (UK /ˌkɒrɪˈændə/; US /ˈkɔːriˌændər/ or /ˌkɔːriˈændər/; Coriandrum sativum), also known as cilantro (/sɪˈlɑːntroʊ/) or Chinese parsley, is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the parts most traditionally used in cooking.
Coriander is native to regions spanning from southern Europe and northern Africa to southwestern Asia. It is a soft plant growing to 50 cm (20 in) tall. The leaves are variable in shape, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and slender and feathery higher on the flowering stems. The flowers are borne in small umbels, white or very pale pink, asymmetrical, with the petals pointing away from the center of the umbel longer (5–6 mm or 0.20–0.24 in) than those pointing toward it (only 1–3 mm or 0.039–0.118 in long). The fruit is a globular, dry schizocarp 3–5 mm (0.12–0.20 in) in diameter.
First attested in English in the late 14th century, the word “coriander” derives from the Old French: coriandre, which comes from Latin: coriandrum, in turn from Ancient Greek: κορίαννον koriannon. The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek ko-ri-ja-da-na written in Linear B syllabic script (reconstructed as koriadnon, similar to the name of Minos’s daughter Ariadne) which later evolved to koriannon or koriandron.
Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, also deriving from coriandrum. It is the common term in North American English for coriander leaves, due to their extensive use in Mexican cuisine.
Coriander grows wild over a wide area of Western Asia and southern Europe, prompting the comment, “It is hard to define exactly where this plant is wild and where it only recently established itself.” Fifteen desiccated mericarps were found in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B level of the Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel, which may be the oldest archaeological find of coriander. About half a litre (a pint) of coriander mericarps was recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen, and because this plant does not grow wild in Egypt, Zohary and Hopf interpret this find as proof that coriander was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians.
Coriander seems to have been cultivated in Greece since at least the second millennium BC. One of the Linear B tablets recovered from Pylos refers to the species as being cultivated for the manufacture of perfumes, it apparently was used in two forms: as a spice for its seeds and as a herb for the flavour of its leaves. This appears to be confirmed by archaeological evidence from the same period; the large quantities of the species retrieved from an Early Bronze Age layer at Sitagroi in Macedonia could point to cultivation of the species at that time.
Coriander was brought to the British colonies in North America in 1670, and was one of the first spices cultivated by early settlers.