Chicory root coffee may stir you to wax romantic, with thoughts of beignet and jazz dancing across your synapses, but this rugged roadside weed offers far more than daydreams.
Chicory as food
Chicory is a highly versatile plant. It’s slightly bitter leaves are used in salads, the buds can be blanched in boiling water, and the taproots are frequently roasted and ground up as a coffee substitute. Chicory is also grown as livestock feed and is said to combat internal parasites. The leaves of wild chicory and domesticated chicory plants that have been stressed are more bitter than domesticated varieties. You can reduce the bitterness by changing the cooking water 2 or 3 times. If you want to harvest chicory root for a Big Easy beverage, gather them before the flowering stems emerge. These roots can also be cooked and eaten the same as carrots or parsnips. Chicory roots can also be ground into flour and used to make bread, and some brewers add chicory to their beer recipes. How’s that for versatile?
Chicory and nutrition
We’ve all heard how important it is to eat our fruits and vegetables. And a certain sailor has been telling us, for decades, to eat our spinach. You may be surprised to learn that chicory contains powerful disease-fighting compounds called polyphenols. In 2013, the Journal of Nutrition published research that showed adults who consume 650 mg of polyphenols each day tend to live longer and better than those who don’t. This is due to polyphenols’ abilities to protect your cardiovascular system, fight cancer, and reduce inflammation. One cup of chicory contains 235 mg of polyphenols, which is twice the amount found in spinach!
Chicory’s family tree
Family trees can be funny things. It’s like going to a reunion and learning that you are actually related to that person. A member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), chicory (Cichorium intybus) is one of those large, gregarious groups that keeps turning up in unexpected places, and some of the connections aren’t exactly clear. For example, curly endive, Belgian endive, and radicchio are all types of chicory, dandelions and lettuce are siblings, and chicory’s cousins include sunflowers, artichokes, yarrow, chrysanthemums, and even dahlias!
Chicory’s pretty blue flowers have lent it many names: cornflower, bachelor’s buttons, coffeeweed, hendibeh, blue daisy, and wild endive. Like other members of the daisy family, the flowers are composite and leaves are normally toothed or lobed. The tough, hairy flowering stem is grooved and plants grow 10 to 40 inches tall. Occasionally, the flowers can be white or pink, but this is rare. Flowers appear July through October. Like dandelions, chicory plants have an irritating milky sap that you know as latex.
Chicory leaf types
Many people call leaf chicory ‘endive’, but this is a mistake. True endive (Cichorium endiva) is its own species. The two can, however, cross-pollinate and hybridize, but that only affects the seeds produced that year. There are three types of cultivated leaf chicory (Cichorium intybus):
*Sometimes, chicory receives a special treatment called etiolation. In the culinary world, this is called blanching. [The word ‘blanching' can also refer to a cooking method that submerges food briefly in boiling water, but I digress.] Whatever you call it, this refers to blocking sunlight to all or part of a plant to produce longer stalks (celery), or white leaves (Belgian endive).
How to grow chicory
In the Bay Area, chicory is a cool season crop that can be started in January and February, for an early summer crop, and again in July or August, for an early winter crop. This gives the seeds time to get started before the weather turns too hot or too cold. Chicory grown in our scorching summers tends to bolt, and the leaves are more bitter. A light frost actually reduces some of the bitterness and adds just a touch of sweetness. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep and thinned to 12 inches apart. Avoid overhead watering, as the leaves are prone to rotting.
Chicory pests and diseases
Despite its rugged nature, there are some pests and diseases that can impact chicory. Bacterial soft rot, damping off disease, fusarium wilt, white mold, anthracnose, bottom rot, downy mildews, and septoria blight are all diseases that attack chicory. Aphids, cabbage loopers, darkling beetles, flea beetles, leaf miners, thrips, and slugs and snails may feed on your chicory plants.
Chicory is one of those plants that can grow like a weed. Once established, you can pretty much ignore it until you decide to harvest whatever part you have a hankering for. And, hey, even the flowers are edible!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!