Cilantro Cousin: Aromatic Papalo Adds Variety to Gardens and Cooking

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Poreleaf, or Porophyllum ruderale, comes in two subspecies and is called by more than a dozen common names, including papaloquelite, or butterfly weed.
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Broadleaf, or Porophyllum coloratum, has rounder, more scalloped leaves with huge oil glands.
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Poreleaf, or Porophyllum ruderale, comes in two subspecies and is called by more than a dozen common names, including papaloquelite, or butterfly weed.
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Poreleaf’s pointed, serrated leaves have a fragrance close to that of asafetida and are said to be eaten as a tonic in Bolivia.

When cilantro has bolted to seed in their gardens, more chefs in search of fresh green flavor are turning to Native American plants from the Porophyllum genus (Compositae, or daisy family). These closely related plants share many similarities, including common names. All are often referred to as papalo (the Nahuatl word for butterfly), papaloquelite (pop-a-low-kah-LEE-tay), or butterfly weed.

With a name like this, it stands to reason that in their native countries, the plants provide nectar to feeding butterflies. Perhaps the butterflies are attracted by the visible oil glands that edge the leaf margins of these tall, strongly scented plants. Their tubular flowers attract bees and other winged pollinators to the garden. But it’s the cilantrolike flavor of the leaves that has set the culinary world astir.

Broadleaf and Poreleaf Infused Recipes

In October 1999, when Alice Waters, renowned chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, first tasted one variety of papaloquelite, she was ecstatic, demanding to know why she had never experienced it before. She purchased every seed packet available from the Underwood Gardens booth at the Taste of the Midwest Festival, an annual event sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food.

Michael Altenberg, chef-owner of Campagnola in Evanston, Illinois, experimented with another variety and pronounced it very compatible with citrus flavors and seafood, and thus very suitable for use in ceviche, a South American cooking method that uses the acidity of lime or lemon juice to cook fresh fish. Vegetarian ceviches are usually made using mild-flavored button mushrooms, but Altenberg says he intends to create a ceviche that includes both papalo and portabella mushrooms.

Porophyllum ruderale is known to English speaking herbalists as poreleaf. Linnaeus first described it in 1753. Botanically, it is now broken into two distinct subspecies that share some of the same ranges.

Four plants, many names

P. ruderale ssp. ruderale is native to the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, and from Costa Rica in Central America to Venezuela in South America. It is known by a variety of names including anamu (meaning a strongly scented herb), chucha, guacamaya, namu, rudade gallina, venadillo, yerba de cabra (goat plant), and yerba del venado (cattle plant). Cattle are known to enjoy eating the plants.

P. ruderale ssp. macrocephalum grows wild in a range that includes the mountains of southeastern Arizona, parts of New Mexico, and western Texas. South of the border, it grows in Mexico, Central America, and in South America from Colombia to Bolivia. It is also native to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and is known to grow on the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire. It, too, has many names, including ahoyacaquilitl, chaoacocopin, chipaca, hierba de venado (deer plant), mampurite (skunky), oreja de monte, purranga, ruda cimarrona (wild rue), ukche, verdura de mariposa (butterfly greenery), wacamacho, xpechukil, yerba de cabra, yerba de chulo, and yerba de peo.

A close relative to poreleaf, with even more essential oil glands on its leaves, is P. coloratum, also called hoja ancha, or broadleaf. This herb has smaller, scalloped leaves shorter than the narrow, oval leaves of the poreleafs. Rogers

McVaugh, a botanist who specializes in the floriculture of Mexico, has determined that there are two varieties of broadleaf. The perennial variety, P. coloratum spp. obtusifolium, has rounder leaves and purple or greenish-white flowers. Flower bracts seldom have spots. The leaves may or may not have visible stems. The annual variety is P. coloratum spp. coloratum, which usually has pale bracts that become spotted with purple when the purple flowers are fully opened. It is more likely than the perennial to have its leaves attached to the branches by stems. Synonyms include P. seemannii.

Both broadleaf varieties are native to Mexico. The University of Arizona’s herbarium collection shelters specimens collected in the Chihuahua and Sonora regions. First described in the 1800s, broadleaf plants have a great deal of genetic variability. These strongly odoriferous plants remind me of asafetida (Ferula assa-foetida) because they taste better than they smell, and their flavor, while said by some to be an acquired taste, blends very easily with other flavors. Broadleaf is used extensively in Mexico as a fresh seasoning added to cooked foods at the table to suit the palate of the diner.

To an herbalist, the strong scents of poreleaf and its relative, broadleaf, have intriguing flavors and effects. They are very refreshing and enlivening, with a hint of medicinal bitters. The Quechua people of Bolivia are said to eat poreleaf daily as a tonic, and after tasting it, I could believe that the herb could expel worms or work as an antibiotic.

In central Mexico, broadleaf and poreleaf are used in cemitas, Mexico’s version of the hero sandwich, as well as in guacamole, salads, and green salsas. Their flavor mingles a top note of citrus, a hint of cucumber, and an aftertaste of cilantro–but with a pronounced medicinal note and without the rankness of cilantro. In fact, I much prefer them to cilantro. Others, focusing on the bitterness, have described their flavors as a combination of cilantro, arugula, and rue. Herb expert Arthur O. Tucker, Ph.D. of Delaware State University, informed me that poreleaf essential oil has been analyzed and contains components found in citrus, cilantro, and cucumber. As of yet, no one has analyzed broadleaf essential oil. Both oils evaporate quickly; like many other herbs, they are tastier when used fresh. I have dried them to use in recipes, but just as with basil, many subtle flavor attributes are lost.

Growing poreleaf and broadleaf

I have grown poreleaf in my Zone 5b garden for the last three years. Large annual plants with an upright habit, P. ruderale ssp. ruderale can eventually grow to 5 or 6 feet in the garden, while P. ruderale ssp. macrocephalum is said to grow to 4 feet. (Since wild plants exhibit great genetic diversity, don’t be surprised if the plants you grow vary somewhat from these descriptions and each other.)

In general, poreleafs are attractive, annual, aromatic plants with a multibranched upright habit and cylindrical stems of green often streaked with dark reddish purple. Leaves of P. r. ssp. ruderale are alternate and opposite, up to 3 inches long and 1 inch wide, oblong with delicately scalloped edges and slightly wavy margins, attached to the stem by a petiole. Their color is blue-green above, with a paler underside. Oil glands are usually on the margins and surfaces of the leaves, but occasionally are absent. Five-parted bronze, green, or purple flowers with slender petals are borne in cylindrical heads about an inch long, containing thirty to fifty tiny blooms on a bristly, yellowish pappus, which is a modified calyx. The fuzzy achenes give the seeds a distinct similarity to dandelion seed heads.

Oval, alternate leaves of P.r. ssp. macrocephalum are also blue-green above, paler below, but are only an inch long, with rounded ends attached to a short petiole. Oil glands are usually on the margins of the leaves. Flowers are similar, but of a pale green color with a red to dark red throat, grouped in the cylindrical heads in groups of forty to sixty.

I start plants indoors in a 4-inch or larger pot, under lights, in the early spring with my other annuals, no more than sixty days before the last frost date. They take seven to ten days at 70°F to germinate. I sow extra seeds so that I can select the strongest plants with the best fragrance to transplant outdoors. I set them out, spacing them 1 to 1 1/2 inches apart, when the soil is warm, usually at least two weeks after the last frost. Aside from watering the new transplants, which were sheltered from the wind in a southern location, I did absolutely nothing to them. I was able to harvest plants in early November before the first frost. Granted, my garden soil is rich and black, and the Midwest gets sufficient rainfall to keep most plants green.

Broadleaf may have both an annual and a perennial variety, but since it is only slightly more frost-tolerant than basil, the distinction is a moot point for most North American gardeners. Its leaves are opposite, rounder, more scalloped, and crisp, almost succulent, with huge oil glands. The foliage is a rich green that hints at blue. Tiny 1/8-inch green flowers are similar in their tubular shape to poreleaf’s, with many clustered into the circular heads. Pollinated flower heads close up while the seeds form, looking like withered marigolds, then open into large, fluffy seed heads. It’s a good-looking plant to incorporate into borders.

Germinate and grow broadleaf the same as for poreleaf. Due to its genetic diversity, some plants may flop over rather than stand erect. Choose the form you want in your garden from the seedlings you’ve started. My container-grown perennial broadleaf grew to a height of 3 feet, making me wonder whether it could achieve 5 feet in the garden. In warmer, wetter climates without a killing frost, either type of papalo could become a weedy pest, constantly sowing volunteers from seeds. Those in colder climates shouldn’t have any trouble.

Just in case, however, I trim both species selectively to increase branching while the plants are young, and then harvest entire plants when they set buds. Despite a heat wave of temperatures in the high 90s, with humidity-indexed temperatures as high as 120°F, my plants didn’t bolt. In fact, they didn’t set buds until more than four months after transplanting, allowing me to pinch them back frequently, which increased bushiness while providing many snippets for culinary experiments.

Cooking with poreleaf and broadleaf

During summer I enjoy using fresh poreleaf in Indian dishes such as raita, a chilled yogurt dressing often made with cucumbers and flavored with dill, cilantro, or parsley. Just flavor plain yogurt with a mixture of about 1 1/2 tablespoons of fresh chopped herbs per cup; try combining poreleaf or broadleaf with parsley, fennel, or lemon basil. Lemon zest works well with either variety of papalo because it complements the subtle citrus flavor in the fresh leaves.

Both poreleaf and broadleaf blend well with cumin and coriander, which are frequently used together in Hispanic and Indian recipes, and with the spicy combinations of ginger, galangal, hot peppers, garlic, or scallions found in Thai cuisine. Cilantro fans should try small quantities of chopped fresh leaves in potato salad. Add papalo at the very end of cooking to avoid losing its flavor.

Louise Gruenberg lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She recently won first place in the International Herb Association’s 2000 Book Award Contest for her book, Herbal Home Hints (Rodale, 1999).

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