What is Chicory?
The Fourth of July is known for fireworks. Some of the most spectacular fireworks happen along the roadsides when bright blue chicory flowers burst open. But only in the mornings. By the afternoon, the flowers have closed, not to open again until the following morning.
What is Chicory?
Chicory is native to Eurasia. It was brought to North America by the European colonists as a medicinal herb that had been in use for 5,000 years. It has adapted so well to its new environment that it is considered invasive in several states.
It is a perennial plant, hardy in zones 3 through 8, that grows in full sun. Chicory grows like dandelions, with a long taproot and a rosette of leaves. The leaves can be eaten in salads. They are bitter like dandelions, so it is best to use young ones rather than the older larger leaves. Unlike dandelions, chicory sends up a stiff stalk 2 to 5 feet tall with leaves and flowers. Bloomtime is July through October. The flowers open in the morning and close about five hours later. This is because they are pollinated by bees which are most active in the mornings. On cloudy days, the flowers may stay open longer or all day.
The roots are also edible. When boiled, they taste like parsnips. The roots are most often roasted until brittle and brown, then ground and brewed like coffee. Prepared this way, the roots taste like coffee but without the caffeine.
The milky sap of the plants was once used to promote milk flow in nursing mothers or to lessen it if there was too much. Bruised leaves were used as a poultice to reduce swelling. Root extracts were used as laxatives and diuretics.
Use as Livestock Feed
Once established and naturalized in this country (and other continents settled by Europeans such as Australia and New Zealand), chicory was used as forage for cattle, horses, sheep, rabbits and poultry. Because it doesn't dry well like hay, chicory is cut and fed as green plants to livestock. Modern science has determined that the tannins in chicory are toxic to intestinal parasites that plague livestock. Animals who are fed chicory have fewer worms.
Ranchers who raise horses consider the roots an excellent substitute for more expensive oats because of their fat and protein content.
Use as a Coffee Substitute
Chicory has a long history of being used as a coffee substitute or additive. Its use became common in the South during the Civil War when Union naval blockades made coffee scarce. What once was a necessity has become a custom. Coffee with chicory added is now the signature drink of New Orleans.
So-called Camp Coffee, coffee and chicory, has been available in England since 1885. It gained in popularity there during the Second World War when coffee and other commonly used foods and drinks were rationed.
How to Grow Chicory
Chicory is easily grown from seed which is available from catalogs that specialize in native plants or wild flowers. If you live in Colorado, you will not be able to get the seeds. Many states don't allow catalogs to ship seeds of invasive plants to their residents. Chicory is considered invasive in Colorado and companies are not allowed to ship the seed to Colorado addresses.
You can sow your seeds in the spring after your last frost when the soil temperature reaches 65 to 75 degrees Farenheit. Surface sow the seeds which means that you want to just sprinkle them on top of the soil. The seeds need light to germinate so you don't want to cover them. They will germinate best if they have good contact with the soil. The best way to achieve that is to lightly tamp the seeds into the soil. An easy and fun way to do it is to walk over the seeds in your garden! Germination should occur within 1 to 3 weeks after sowing. For best results, thin your seedlings to 10 to 12 inches apart to give them plenty of room to grow.
The next time you are admiring the pretty blue chicory flowers adorning the fields, consider gathering a few plants, including the roots, to add to your morning coffee or lunchtime salad.
© 2017 Caren White