Wild Flowers: 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.
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.
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.
Once established and naturalized in this country (and other continents settled by Europeans such as Australia and New Zealand), the plants were used as forage for cattle, horses, sheep, rabbits and poultry.
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. 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.
Chicory is a perennial, hardy in zones 3 through 8. It 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. As previously mentioned, 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.
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, they taste like coffee but without the caffeine.
So 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.
© 2017 Caren White