Discovering Papalo – a South American Herb

Papalo plants


“Oh give me a home
Where the Papalo roam…”

 I knew nothing of this herb until I saw it for sale at the flea market. Behind the table was a Hispanic man. Foot-long bouquets of oval leaves were waving in the breeze like a flutter of butterflies in front of him. As I am naturally curious about new plants, especially food plants, I asked him:

“What do you call this?”

“Papalo. Good for the liver.”

“How do you cook it?”

“No, don’t cook.”

I bought a bunch and munched on a leaf. It tasted heavenly, like cilantro with a hint of lemon. The leaves were gently scalloped, with evenly-spaced “pores” on the surface.

I returned hours later, and he had sold out.

“No more papalo?” I said, looking surprised.

“No more papalo” he replied, in a tone of mild condescension.

I came back next week and bought more, trying it with meat and fish dishes, laying the oval leaves on top just before eating. It enhanced and complemented them nicely, much like cilantro, only better, I thought. I found out that papalo (Porophyllum ruderale) is easy to grow in the summer, unlike cilatro, which dislikes the heat, too much or too little sun, and is just plain finicky.

It is an annual in the cold and temperate parts of the world, and will die off in freezing temperatures, but it will leave behind many small, elongated seeds with tufts of hair at one end.

In Bolivia, papalo is used in treating liver ailments and for high blood pressure. Which would explain (maybe) the name “Bolivian coriander”, another name for this herb. Though the term “papalo” itself derives from “papalotl” which means “butterfly” in Nahuatl, since the leaves supposedly mimic the movement  of butterfly wings in a breeze.

Papalo predates cilantro’s use in Mexican and South American cuisine, so the dishes that are commonly served with cilantro today (such as salsa) would have used papalo instead.

With that in mind, here’s my own recipe for papalo salsa:

Papalo Salsa Surprise

a few tomatoes, chopped
half a bell pepper, chopped
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
1 lime, sliced in half
a few cloves of garlic, peeled
1 cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 or 2 onions, chopped and peeled
many papalo leaves (try 6 at first)

Toss everything into a blender, squeeze the lime juice into the mix, and then run the blender for a few seconds. Pour everything into a bowl and let sit in the refrigerator for awhile, so the flavors meld. The taste is vibrant… and however many times I do this recipe, the flavor is always a pleasant surprise !

If you would like to try growing papalo yourself, or if you don’t find it at your local market, here’s a source for the seeds:


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