By Maryann Readal
It is truly astonishing how much is written about chicory, Cichorium intybus, a common roadside herb that has naturalized to the point that we think of it as a native plant. Chicory is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for September. Check out the web page for additional interesting information and recipes using this roadside herbal plant.
Here are several interesting facts about chicory:
Although chicory contains no caffeine, it can be used as a coffee substitute. It is also used as a flavor enhancer for coffee and is particularly popular in the coffees served in New Orleans. If you have visited New Orleans, you no doubt have had coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. Their robust coffee is flavored with ground and roasted chicory root. In the past, chicory has been used as a coffee substitute when wars have interrupted the coffee trade.
Chicory has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its name is thought to be derived from the Egyptian word “ctchorium,” where it was grown and irrigated by the flooding of the Nile. Many ancient herbalists and writers talked about chicory in their writings. In 16th and 17th century herbals, chicory was recommended for a number of ailments. Due to the sky-blue color of the flowers, Nicholas Culpepper recommended that chicory be used for “sore eyes that are inflamed.” Chicory is one of the bitter herbs of the Bible. Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer and naturalist described how Romans used the plant.
Among historical figures who have recognized the value of chicory was Charlemagne, who listed it among the 75 herbs to be grown in his garden. Thomas Jefferson planted it at Monticello in 1774 as a ground cover, fodder for his cattle, and for his dinner salad. He encouraged George Washington to grow it as well. Carl Linnaeus listed chicory in his theoretical floral clock because its blooms open reliability with the rising of the sun and close at noon.
Besides the clear blue color of chicory blooms, each petal of the flower is really its own flower, having pollen-bearing and pollen-receiving parts, making pollination very efficient and making a visit by bees especially efficient as well. Chicory seeds are a choice source of food for goldfinches.
Inulin, a low-calorie carbohydrate component of chicory, is valued as a support for a healthy digestive system. The food industry uses it as a sweetener and it adds fiber to foods. Chicory also contains a substance that is toxic to roundworms. For this reason, farmers mix it with hay for their livestock.
Chicory is a cool season plant. It prefers temperatures between 45 and 75 degrees. It is easy to grow from seed. It needs sun and the soil should be kept evenly moist. It is ready to harvest 85-100 days from planting. The young leaves are the most desirable for salads.
The next time you spot one of these clear blue chicory flowers growing along the roadside, be reminded that there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. And if you want to use some in an arrangement for your dinner table, remember that the flowers will close around noon.
Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any medical or health treatment.