Wednesday, July 20, 2016


(Cichorium intybus)

A symbol of frugality, chicory is part of a small genus of about six species native to Eurasia, but transplanted and growing throughout North America.  It is often cultivated, especially in Europe for its edible leaves and its roots, and the dozens of cultivars scarcely resemble the scrawny roadside weed.  Its Latin name, Cichorium, has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians who were really fond of chicory. Identified as one of the bitter herbs in the Bible associated with Passover, chicory’s appreciation as a culinary herb dates back to at least Roman time, but even today it is eaten as a spring tonic in many cultures.  Used throughout history, Napoleon’s armies chewed raw ground chicory like chewing tobacco, Charlemagne demanded that chicory be one of the 75 herbs planted in his garden and Elizabeth I drank a broth made from chicory.  It came to the United States with the colonists as a medicinal herb, but Thomas Jefferson and others grew it as a forage crop as it is a favored food of livestock as well as wild game including deer, turkey and quail.  In recent years, chicory has received widespread attention in a number of countries due to its high yield, high mineral content and drought resistance.

A relative of the dandelion, they both have a deep tap root and a rosette of toothed basal leaves, however, chicory puts up a stiff hairy flower stalk clothed sparsely with small leaves and a height of 2-5 feet.  A very ornamental plant, it is in flower from July through October.  The flowers are an exquisite sky to cerulean blue 1 ½ inches wide.  Oddly enough, the blue color of the flowers is changed to a brilliant red by the acids of ants, so place a flower on an ant hill and watch the magic!  Although a perennial, chicory is usually cultivated as an annual, especially when being grown for winter salads and will tolerate very acid and very alkaline soils but must have full sun.  Easily started from seed, they may be sown in April for a summer crop of edible leaves or in June/July for a winter crop and if grown for their roots, sow in May or June.  The leaves can be harvested when they are large enough, the flower heads in July, but the roots are best harvested during rainy weather in late autumn before frost.  Bunch chicory roots to dry or to blanch the roots, store in sand in a dark room to produce tops that are more tender and less bitter.

A multi-purpose plant, chicory gives off the fragrance of fresh field greens in the garden and in the kitchen all parts of the plant may be used from a natural sweetener to a spring salad and even a caffeine free coffee substitute.  Both the stalks and the leaves have an asparagus-like flavor when young and may be eaten raw or braised.  Chicory leaves may also be boiled for a blue dye.  The flowers are an attractive addition to the salad bowl, dried for potpourri and the buds are often pickled.  The young roots can be boiled and eaten with butter like parsnip, roasted for a slightly bitter caramel flavor or used as a seasoning in soups, sauces and gravies.  The roots are most often roasted and used as a coffee additive or substitute especially C. intybus “Magdeburg” which is grown for its large roots.  A good source of folic acid, potassium and vitamin A, chicory has tonic properties and is beneficial in the diet of diabetics due to its high insulin content.

Chicory flowers open in the morning light

with regularity and close five hours later,
making them well-suited to display
in "floral garden clocks"

"Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.
I have given you all things, even as the green herbs
Genesis 9:3

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