Cilantro is easy to identify by its unique smell and taste, which people associate with citrus or, in some cases, soap. It is more challenging to distinguish cilantro by its appearance, however, because several plants closely resemble this culinary herb.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is also known as coriander, Chinese parsley, and dhania and is a herbaceous annual in the family Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae).
Cilantro plants have pinnate, compound leaves. Each leaf has an odd number of smaller leaflets that connect to a single petiole. These delicate leaves have broad, rounded lobes that resemble the spades symbol on playing cards. The leaves have an alternate arrangement, and their margins have serrations and incisions.
Cilantro plants have impressive white flowers with the characteristic shape found on plants in the Umbelliferae family. These flowers (called umbels) have a single, thin stem with multiple stems projecting outwards like spokes to create an umbrella-like canopy.
There are several other plants in the Apiaceae family with these leaf and flower shapes. For example, the compound leaves and umbel flowers of celery, carrots, and anise plants resemble those of cilantro. The leaf morphology of parsley and cilantro is almost indistinguishable, even to experienced gardeners.
While there is no mistaking the flavor and fragrance of cilantro, it is relatively easy to confuse this delicious and health-promoting herb with other plants. Let’s meet some of these cilantro look-a-likes.
1. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley is probably the plant that resembles cilantro most closely. When viewing parsley and cilantro leaves and flowers from a distance, it is challenging to tell them apart.
Like cilantro, parsley plants have compound, pinnate leaves with serrated margins. Parsley leaves are also arranged alternately along the stem, with the same deep green color as cilantro. The flowers of parsley plants have the same umbel shape as cilantro inflorescence
If one has a closer look, it is possible to see a few subtle differences. For example, parsley flowers are yellow instead of white like cilantro.
The compound leaves of parsley plants are not lobed like those of cilantro. One can also tell cilantro apart from parsley by looking at the shape of its compound leaves. Another distinction is that parsley leaflets have a deltoid (triangular) rather than an orbicular (rounded) shape like those of cilantro.
2. Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
Anise is another member of the Apiaceae family that resembles cilantro. The green middle and upper leaves of anise look similar to cilantro, but they do not resemble C. sativum foliage quite as closely as parsley does.
Like cilantro, anise plants have compound, lobed leaves with petioles that attach to the main stem. Anise leaflets also have serrations like cilantro plants.
One of the easiest ways to differentiate between anise and cilantro leaves is by comparing the shape of the lobes on each leaf. Anise leaflets have shallower, less pronounced lobes than on cilantro plants, which are deeply lobed.
Another visual similarity is the umbel flowers that many anise plants produce. From a distance, many anise varieties are difficult to tell apart from cilantro because their flowers are white. Some P. anisum varieties are easier to distinguish from cilantro because their flowers are yellow.
3. Celery (Apium graveolens)
Celery plants look comparable to cilantro at certain lifecycle stages. Like cilantro, celery is in the Apiaceae family, so they inevitably share some common visual characteristics.
Like cilantro, celery plants develop beautiful flowers whose color is white with green undertones. Celery flowers show the typical umbel form of the Apiaceae family. As with cilantro, these plants have soft compound leaves with leaflets in a pinnate arrangement.
Once celery plants develop their characteristic, upright stems people usually see on their dinner plates, it is easy to identify them. When celery plants are immature, their leaves look similar to cilantro foliage.
If one inspects the plants closely, one will see a difference between the celery and cilantro leaves. Celery leaflets have a rhomboid (diamond) shape and are not orbicular as they are on cilantro.
4. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
Chervil is another richly fragrant herb that resembles cilantro. This herb has an anise-type flavor. Chervil is in the Apiaceae family and is also called French parsley.
The little white compound umbels that chervil produces exhibit a strong resemblance to cilantro blossoms.
Chervil’s light-green foliage also looks like cilantro but has some subtle differences. Chervil leaves are in an opposite arrangement on the stem, which approximates the leaf configuration on cilantro plants.
Like cilantro, chervil plants have compound leaves. By looking closely, one will see that chervil leaflets are pointed at their tips and have shallow lobes and mild serrations along their margins as cilantro does.
Also, notice that chervil leaves are tri-pinnate rather than odd-pinnate (as is the case with C. sativum). Like parsley, the tri-pinnate leaves of chervil give the plants a slightly frillier appearance than cilantro.
5. Carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus)
Carrot is another plant species in the Apiaceae family that looks like cilantro. Carrot plants are easily confused with cilantro because they start producing white umbrella-like flowers near the end of their lifecycles.
The leaves of carrot plants are compound, with lobed leaflets like cilantro. Carrot leaflets also have incised margins, similar to those of cilantro. From a distance, one might mistake carrot plant foliage for cilantro leaves.
Viewed up close, one should have less difficulty distinguishing between cilantro and carrot plants. Unlike cilantro, carrot plants have tri-pinnate and not odd-pinnate leaves. This gives carrot leaves a slightly more frilly appearance than cilantro foliage.
Carrot leaflets are ovate instead of orbicular like on cilantro plants. When comparing the two plant types, note that carrot leaflet lobes are rounded but with pointed tips. This shape contrasts with the evenly circular lobes of cilantro leaflets.
6. Parsnip (Pastinaca sativum)
Parsnip looks similar to cilantro, at least above the ground. Like cilantro, the leaves of this root vegetable from the Apiaceae family have a compound form with leaflets in a pinnate arrangement. Parsnip leaflets also have rounded lobes with jagged margins that resemble those found on cilantro.
Differentiating between parsnip and cilantro requires close inspection of the leaflet margins. Unlike cilantro, Parsnip leaflet margins have teeth instead of the finer indented serrations of cilantro. An additional difference is that the lobes of parsnip leaflets are ovate (like carrot foliage) rather than orbicular as in the case of cilantro.
Parsnip and cilantro flowers also share the umbel form. The primary distinction is that parsnip blossoms are yellow rather than white.
7. Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)
Unlike the plants described above, poison hemlock is a cilantro look-a-like from the Apiaceae family that contains highly toxic alkaloids.
Poison hemlock and cilantro foliage appear similar. Like cilantro, poison hemlock has pinnate compound leaves with smaller leaflets that attach to a single petiole. The white umbel flowers of hemlock also resemble cilantro blossoms closely.
Poison hemlock stems exhibit a strong resemblance to those of cilantro. Like cilantro, hemlock stems are also hollow stems.
Hemlock plants look most like cilantro when they are immature. Full-grown C. maculatam plants are taller than cilantro, making their height one of the primary features that distinguish between the two species.
Closer observation reveals some differences between poison hemlock and cilantro leaves. C. maculatam leaves are longer, pointier, and more triangular than the rounder shape of cilantro foliage.
8. Fool’s Parsley (Aesthusa cynapium)
Fool’s parsley is also a toxic plant in the Apiaceae family that might be mistaken for cilantro. As with cilantro foliage, this mildly poisonous plant has compound leaves in a pinnate form. Fool’s parsley leaflets also have lobes and serrated margins like cilantro.
Another similarity between A. cynapium and C. sativum is their white, umbrella-shaped inflorescences. The flowers that fool’s parsley produces make the plants tricky to tell apart in the late summer months.
To avoid confusing fool’s parsley with cilantro, pay attention to their leaves. While the shapes of their leaves are similar, attentive persons will notice that fool’s parsley has thinner leaflets with sharper tips than cilantro.
Another way to distinguish between these plants is by comparing the density of their foliage. The compound leaves of A. cynapium are sparsely arranged on elongated stems, in contrast to the denser, bushier foliage of cilantro plants.