How to Grow and Care for Papalo

If you’re looking for a good substitute for cilantro, try papalo. Since cilantro is very prone to bolting during the summer months, it can be very frustrating to try and grow. So, you may want to explore the papalo herb. Even though it’s less well-known, it’s easy to grow and it’s a herb that has a vibrant, robust flavor. Many people think that the taste is a mix of cilantro, lime, and nasturtium flowers.

This is also a very attractive plant because papalo can easily reach three feet tall with blue-green, gently scalloped foliage. It makes a fantastic container plant, and it also does well in raised beds with other vegetables or herbs. You can start it from seed inside in early April, and it’s sensitive to cold weather as it’s a Mexican herb that won’t survive outside until after the spring frost recedes.

As this herb comes with a strong flavor, a little will go a long way in your dish. If you’re adding it to salsa, tacos, or other dishes, start out by adding only a few chopped leaves and add more as needed to get a balanced flavor. We’ll outline everything you need to know about growing and using this plant below, including a few fun recipes.

1 Healthy Papalo
Papalo is a herb that loves being in hot and slightly humid weather, and it has a very spicy taste. Papalo by F. Delventhal / CC BY 2.0

Growing Papalo – Quick Reference Table

Common Name(s): Papaloquelite, papalo, yerba porosa, and Bolivian coriander
Days to Harvest:Harvest ongoing as you need it
Diseases:No known disease issues
Fertilizer:Top dress with an inch of compost each year
Germination:7 to 21 days in 70°F temperatures
Light:Partial shade to full sun
Pests:Pest-repellent
Scientific Name:Porophyllum ruderale
Soil:Fertile to average
Water Needs:Average

Papalo Origins

You can trace the papalo’s origins back to Mexico as it’s very popular as an alternative to cilantro that adores the heat, and it’s popular in a range of Mexican cuisine. You can find it available in Mexican markets under the names of broadleaf, papaloquelite, yerba porosa, and quilquina.

This herb falls into a family of informal quelites that includes semi-wild greens that you find growing in South America. These edible greens come packed with nutrients and vitamins, and they grow very well out in the wild, making them very easy to plant and grow in your garden.

Flavor wise, you can think of papalo as a mixture of cilantro and spiced arugula with a hint of rue mixed in. If you don’t like the stronger flavor, you can pick younger leaves with a milder flavor profile. You can choose from narrow or broad-leaf varieties, and each variety is distinguished by their leaf size. Broadleaf papalo is much more common than the narrow leaf one. Most of the narrow leaf cultivars have a soapy taste, and they’re much more pungent than cilantro.

Papalo Herb Care

Papalo is a name that comes from the Nahuatl word for butterfly, and papaloquelite means butterfly leaf. The flowers offer a good source of nectar for butterflies, bees, and pollinators. The seeds are very similar to what you’d see with traditional dandelion seeds, and they have an umbrella and a stalk to help them fly on the wind and germinate in different spots. If you want to get healthy papalo plants, do the following:

Fertilizer

When colder weather is right around the corner, it’s a great time to fertilize your papalo plants. The timing of your fertilization process will vary depending on when you want to harvest, and it’s good to apply fertilizer at least once a month. If you are planning on allowing your papalo plants to go into the winter months, it’s a good idea to fertilize them in late summer or early autumn. This can result in better flavor when cooler weather arrives.

Fertilizer should be a balanced granular or liquid form that has higher phosphorus, and you may need a specific product. Most bromeliads are very heavy feeds, and they need 10% to 20% of the fertilizer to be magnesium. Fertilizer burn usually happens when you over fertilize the plants or when it’s not fertilized enough. If your plant has leaf discoloration or black leaf tips, this can be a result of fertilizer burn.

You want to feed your plants according to the directions on the package, and avoid applying a heavy load at once. Too much fertilizer can result in fertilizer burn like we outlined above. Stop fertilizing your papalo plants late in the summer months so that the nutrients won’t lock up in the plant throughout the winter.

Light

Papalo is a herb that grows very well in a bright and hot space, and this makes sense since it originated in Mexico. Plant it in full sun to get the quickest growth habit.

2 Papalo Light Requirements
Papalo loves full sun, but it can also grow in partial shade without any huge issues, so this makes it more versatile. Papalo by drazz / CC BY-SA 2.0

Soil

There is a layer of soil found at the bottom of your floral or vegetable containers that supplies the plant with nutrients at the root level. Containers with finished mixes offer a longer shelf life, but you may need to add new nutrients every six months to encourage healthy growth. Working with your soil and your papalo can produce a huge amount of edible foliage that you can enjoy with minimal work all year-round.

The nutrient content of the soil will benefit your papalo. They have small amounts of organic matter and air spaces to allow nutrients, water, and oxygen to get to the roots. Adding organic materials to your soil like compost can increase how much nitrogen is in the soil, and this reduces nitrogen stress.

Temperature and Climate

Papalo is an annual sub-tropical herb that grows very well in hotter climates. If you happen to live in a warmer region, you’ll have no issues growing the plant all year-round. For colder regions, you’ll need to be more careful. Don’t move your plant to the garden until the frost dangers have passed for the season. Temperatures that dip below 48°F and 50°F can stunt your plant’s growth.

Water

This herb has moderat water needs, and you want to keep the soil consistently moist but not saturated. It doesn’t like wet feet, and it can withstand drought as it’s from a drier climate zone. Water it when the top inch or two of soil starts to dry out, and take care not to water it too much.

Papalo Propagation

Papalo is a lesser-known alternative to growing cilantro, and it’s native to South America and Mexico. Growing it indoors is very easy since the plants will grow quickly enough to be at harvest height in four to six weeks. However, you will need warmer weather to pull off propagation, but it’s an easy process.

All you need is a single healthy leaf that isn’t infested with insects. First, you remove the stalk. Hold the healthy leaf in one hand and slice along the leaf’s midrib using a very sharp knife. Then, make a second cut that starts at the center to create a cross shape. Next, you have to remove the edges of the leaf that will naturally fall off. Finally, plant your leaf with the open side down in a small pot with high-quality potting soil. Continue adding water on a routine basis.

  • HappyDIYHome Tip – When you start papalo from seed, make sure you have the hull intact. If you don’t germination can drop by as much as 10%. 

3 Papalo Propagation
You want to make sure that your papalo germinates as starting it is one of the biggest challenges to growing it.

Papalo Pruning

You won’t need to worry too much about pruning this plant. However, you can easily pinch the top off to promote bushy growth and use the trimmings in your kitchen when you cook. If you let it grow without doing any pruning, this plant will get very floppy. This is why it’s a good idea to grow your papalo close together so they support one another.

How to Grow Papalo

Once you get it started, papalo is very easy to grow. The trick is getting it started. If you follow the seed packet instructions, you may get less than stellar results. Since this herb can be very finicky, it’s always better to be cautious and plant more than you need than not have enough. You can try to start with six to eight seed trays, and you’ll need high-quality potting soil.

Overseed the trays, cover with a light layer of soil, and then water them in. Allow the seeds to sit in a warm, sunny space. You should see seedlings sprout within 7 to 10 days, and they’ll be ready to transplant within four weeks. You want to transplant your seedlings only after the threat of frost has passed for the spring as this is a hot-climate herb that won’t survive freezing temperatures.

When it’s time to transplant your seedlings, take them outside to a spot that gets full sun. You’ll want to transplant them roughly two feet apart when the weather forecast is very hot and humid. Keep it lightly watered, but don’t saturate the soil for the best results. Wait until the soil dries out between watering sessions to keep it happy. Remember, it’s native to Mexico, so hot and humid with less water are great mixes.

Harvesting Papalo

If you choose to set up a garden, no matter if it’s a traditional one, raised bed, or container, papalo is a nice herb to have. It’s a great cilantro substitute, and it’s very commonly featured in Mexican dishes. It has a citrus flavor that goes well in dips and soups. It’s also very popular to use in Mexican popsicles. Even though this herb is good for you, you don’t want to drink or eat the water you boil it in.

It’s a very hardy herb that can grow in several different climates, and you can plant bunches of it in your garden or container if you want a good harvest. Planting them tighter together will ensure that they support one another and don’t droop as they grow. You also want to take care to harvest this plant before it produces flowers. After you finish one harvest, you should cut the entire plant back to the ground to encourage new growth and a second harvest. Leave between one and four inches of the plant left to regrow.

With a little care on your part, you can harvest papalo all year-round and grow it in areas where other plants won’t survive. They can live up to a year per plant without an issue, and they are known to thrive in poor conditions. Because this plant is resistant to pests, you won’t have to worry so much about fertilizer as you would with other fast-growing plants. It can stay healthy in light shade and full sun too.

4 Harvesting Papalo
If you pick your papalo back, it can continue to produce multiple harvests from a single plant, so you can easily get fresh papalo throughout the season. Papalo Harvest by peganum / CC BY-SA 2.0

Common Problems with Papalo

Papalo is grown all around the world, and it’s a plant that loves sunlight and warmth. However, it can be challenging to enjoy the herb in a fresh state in certain areas in the world due to tricky growing conditions. First off, it doesn’t thrive if you have coastal air. Dry, warm air can easily steal moisture from the plant, and this will make it fail before it produces the leaves. Also, if you have a higher salt content in your water supply, it’ll damage the roots. This can cause the herb to taste odd.

However, the biggest issue that can impact your papalo’s taste is fertilizer. When you first plant them in the spring, they won’t have a lot of fertilizer. When you add new plants, you deplete the fertilizer levels in the soil. This doesn’t give them the nutrients they need to produce that vibrant, bold flavor.

Growing Problems

The rule of thumb for a healthy papalo plant is that they’ll turn upwards toward the direction of the sun. If it doesn’t do this, something isn’t right. Don’t be surprised if the plant develops yellow leaves along the base of the plant. It can also be a sign of distress that tells you that your papalo needs more light.

How to Use Papalo

Papalo is native to South America and it was originally brought to the United States in the 1960s. The University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Department introduced it in hopes that it would do well in southern climates. It’s a cilantro cousin, and it looks very similar but it can grow up to three feet tall. The leaves will start to grow and reach roughly six inches long. It’s a perennial plant, so you can easily collect the leaves throughout the year to use as you need them. The seeds can spread far and wide if you don’t monitor them when they’re in your garden.

You can use papalo just like you’d use cilantro. It’s a common spice in Mexican and South American food, and the seeds feature a spicy flavor that is very similar to cayenne. The leaves are more cilantro-like, and you can use them in salsa and soups and tacos. It makes a great substitute when you can’t get your hands on cilantro. However, both feature different uses. Papalo can go in a stew or soup to give it a spicier flavor, and you can use cilantro leaves without adding any heat.

In Mexico, Bolivia, and other areas in Central America, papalo is so popular that it’s common to see it in vases in restaurants as a fresh herb. Diners can pick the leaves and shred them into their food before they eat it. It doesn’t dry very well, but you can freeze it if you puree it with water or oil and put it into ice cube trays. There are a few popular uses for papalo, and the following recipes can help you use up some of your harvest:

Guacamole with Papalo

  • 1 or more serrano or jalapeno chili, finely minced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons finely diced onion
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons papalo, finely chopped
  • coarse salt to taste
  • 3 to 4 avocados
  • 1/2 cup garden tomatoes, finely diced
  • Topping: 1/4 cup tomatoes – finely diced, 1 tablespoon onion – diced, 1 teaspoon papalo leaves – finely shredded

To start, crush the chillies, onions, lime juice, salt, and the papalo with a molcajete or mortar and pestle until you get a very fine paste. Add your avocado flesh and mash it until it mixes roughly into the paste.

Next, stir in the tomatoes and then put it in your chosen serving dish. Add in the onion, tomatoes, and shredded papalo that you reserved for the topping and pile it on the surface of the guacamole. If you want, you can garnish it with whole papalo leaves.

Fresh Tomato Salsa with Papalo

  • 1/2 cup onion – finely diced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh papalo
  • 1 to 3 chilies – finely diced
  • 5 tomatoes – finely diced
  • Juice of one lime
  • Whole fresh papalo leaves to garnish

Get a bowl and mix the onions and chillies of your choice together before adding in the salt, lime juice ,and chopped papalo. Add  the tomatoes into the mixture just before you serve. The salt will draw out the water and give you a watery salsa if you add them sooner. Garnish with fresh leaves and serve.

5 How to Use Papalo
Papalo can add a peppery taste to your dish if you use the seeds or a very vibrant taste if you use the leaves. Dish with Papalo by T. Tseng / CC BY 2.0

Papalo Pesto

  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds or pine nuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped and seeded chiles
  • 2 cups of papalo
  • Optional: juice of 1 lime

Mix the nuts, papalo, chilies, onion, salt, and lime juice if you want to add it until you get a paste. You’ll need a mortar and pestle or a food processor for this step. Slowly mix in the olive oil and work it into your paste. If you want to use a food processor, add the oil in one steady, smooth stream.

This will make a cup of pesto. Whatever you don’t use right away, you can freeze in ice cube trays and put into a storage bag and freeze for several months. It works well as a sandwich spread, as a salad topping mixed with Queso Blanco or Monterey Jack cheese, or on a pasto with fresh tomatoes.

Bottom Line

Papalo is a unique herb that mimics the taste of cilantro, and it’s relatively easy to grow once you get it germinated. Put your plants close together for the best results in a full sun or part shade location to enjoy this spicy herb all year-round.

Papalo 1 Papalo 2

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