CORIANDER: CORIANDRUM SATIVUM
San Agustin is a fascinating town in the mountains of Colombia which at one time was inhabited by a mysterious Pre-Colombian tribe who left behind hundreds of huge statues carved in stone in the shape of anthropomorphic creatures. It was there nearly twenty five years ago that I first tasted fresh coriander leaves. In that area of Colombia breakfast always consisted of potato and coriander leaf soup for first course, which was so delicious that even after several weeks of the same cuisine I never tired of it. The unique flavour of the leaves can take some getting used to – the ancient Greeks apparently named coriander after “koris” meaning a bedbug as they considered its taste and smell quite unpleasant. It must however have been appreciated by countless others for it was one of the first herbs to be used in cookery and as a medicine and is still hugely popular today. Coriander was mentioned in Sanskrit texts dating back almost 7000 years ago (1) and we know that at least 3000 years ago it was an important ingredient in cookery and medicines of the ancient Egyptians.
Coriander leaf, often called Chinese parsley, is excellent for balancing the flavour of hot spicy dishes and is used for just this purpose in Thai, Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, Chinese, Indonesian, African and South American cooking. Coriander has a cooling effect in the body. In Ayurvedic medicine, coriander is specifically recommended to balance Pitta, (“fire”) and to remedy hot inflammatory conditions, notably in the digestive tract. In India they use lashings of fresh coriander leaf in their food both to prevent and remedy symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, wind, colic and diarrhoea. In my practice I frequently recommend coriander to enhance appetite and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients, and with its relaxant and anti-inflammatory effect in the gut, to relieve spasm, griping, gastritis and nervous dyspepsia. The seeds are often combined with laxatives to prevent any griping the latter may cause. The relaxant effects of coriander (thanks to its high volatile oil content) seen in the digestive tract are also apparent in the uterus, helping to relieve menstrual problems, particularly period pain. In the Arab world women have long taken coriander to lessen the pain of childbirth.
In India they roast fennel seeds with coriander seeds and a little salt and chew them after eating to combat sleepiness after a large meal. I have often tried this and it works every time. In 17th century England the famous herbalist John Gerard wrote, “Coriander seeds well prepared and covered with sugar as comfits, taken after meat, helpeth digestion” Coriander sweets were also common at Victorian and Edwardian dinner tables. I think coriander seeds are delicious eaten fresh straight off the plant and apparently the finest ones grow here in England where they are cultivated mainly for making gin. For centuries they have been used to flavour alcoholic drinks and liquers such as Chartreuse and Benedictine.
The cooling effects of coriander make it an excellent remedy for urinary disorders, particularly those with hot burning symptoms such as cystitis and urethritis. Taken in warm decoction it helps to resolve urinary tract infections swiftly. The diuretic effect of coriander goes some way to explain its cooling and cleansing effect. One of my favourite remedies for reducing menopausal heat and flushes, as an adjunct to other hormone balancing herbs, is coriander water. Place 3 dessertspoonfuls of coriander seeds in a cup, fill it with cold water and leave overnight. Strain and drink first thing in the morning.
I have frequently prescribed coriander leaf juice or tea to drink and to apply externally to soothe hot itchy skin rashes such as urticaria and to calm other allergic symptoms such as hay fever and catarrh. In other parts of the world coriander has been used for erisepelas (an inflammatory skin condition) and to tone down an over florid complexion.
According to an ancient Chinese belief, coriander confers longevity, even immortality on those who eat it (3) and has long been popular as an aphrodisiac. The phyto-oestrogen content of the seeds (2) may well provide a valid explanation for this. They are definitely strengthening and revitalising, and renowned for clearing the mind and improving memory when taken regularly. Through their beneficial action in the liver and digestive tract they can lessen the intoxicating effect of alcohol as well as the soporific effect of large meals.
Today in China, as in India, the seeds are used to promote sweating and break a fever, to bring out the rash in eruptive infections like chicken pox and measles and to stimulate the appetite.(4) I recommend the seeds, which can be mixed with turmeric and cumin, in hot teas for colds, flu, coughs and catarrh to aid the body’s fight against infection and as a decongestant. The tea also makes an effective gargle for sore throats and oral thrush. The volatile oils in the seeds ( comprising coriandrol, geraniol, borneol, camphor, carvone, and anethole) have an antibacterial as well as an anti fungal action, while the fresh leaves are rich in vitamins A and C, as well as niacin, thiamin, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron.(5) The vitamins have anti-oxidant properties, helping to prevent damage caused by free radicals and thereby slowing the aging process and the onset of degenerative disease – Chinese wisdom certainly does seem to hold true.
Coriander is easy to grow in the garden or in pots on your patio or windowsill. Just as the Indians use coriander seeds in most of their curries, I could happily put the fresh leaf in a multitude of summer salads, cold soups, potato dishes and vegetable juices, knowing that while it scintillates my taste buds it might also endow me with vibrant health and youthfulness!
(1), (4), & (5) Foster S. Herbal Renaissance. P. 78. Gibbs-Smith, Salt Lake City, USA. 1993
(2) Miller, L&B, Ayurveda & Aromatherapy. P. 245. Lotus Press, USA 1995
(3) PDR Family guide to Natural Medicines & Healing therapies, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999. P. 217