Chicory, Scrappy Yet Elegant


By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Two sorts of plants are known as “chicory.”  One, Cichorium endivia, is grown around the world as a food plant, and used frequently in salads. It’s endive.

The other, Cichorium intybus, is the chicory we see freely glorying in roadsides and waste spaces.  It is a rigid, branching perennial plant that can reach about three feet in height. In July through September it bears groups of sky blue (very rarely, pink or white) ligulate flower heads. That blue will take your breath away, especially coming, as it seems to, out of nowhere.

Common names for Cichorium intybus include wild bachelor buttons, blue daisy, blue dandelion, and bunk. In Dutch, it is called, “witlof”.

It is not a rewarding cut flower.  My late mother-in-law, in an attempt to impress her own new and disapproving mother-in-law, gathered a lovely bouquet of chicory and displayed it in a silver tea pot. By the time the moment came to show it off in a spot of honor, the flowers and foliage had turned black, blasted and mushy.  You have been warned.

There are, however, many other impressive qualities to the lowly roadside chicory.  For one, while it has long grown wild in Europe, it was not a native of the New World until introduced, the story goes, by Thomas Jefferson himself. He procured seeds from Europe for Monticello.  It obviously thrived.

In another brush with greatness, chicory flowers distilled in water are mentioned by Cervantes in his Don Quixote, as a valued sleep aid, although Sancho Panza preferred something stronger.

Inulin, a component of chicory, has been valued as a support to the digestive system.  Another component, plant phenols, have been linked to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The bitter foliage has long been used as animal fodder, but can, when blanched to remove the bitterness, be served as a salad, and is particularly popular in France and Belgium. It is cultivated as a food crop, and sometimes forced indoors for a winter salad.

CAUTION: It would be best to only eat chicory cultivated for food use: the roots can absorb chemicals applied nearby, and the foliage can become toxic.

Roasted chicory root can sometimes be found as a component of dark European beers, such as the Dutch “Witlofbier.” The long, branching, hairy roots, when roasted and ground are used as a coffee additive or substitute. This is especially characteristic of New Orleans cuisine, in part because of its affinity to French cuisine, and also because of the legacy of the American Civil War.

Coffee and beignetCoffee had become scarce in Europe from time to time, after the Continent had become famously addicted to the stuff, either through legal prohibition or as a consequence of war.  The French had responded to the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars by substituting chicory. And so, when the Union naval blockade of Confederate ports made the import of coffee difficult, the chicory root became a common substitute throughout the American South. The plant’s inulin caramelizes when roasted, giving the brew a rich dark color and a sweeter taste than unroasted roots.  What began as necessity became stylish, and the New Orleans brew still often contains chicory. You can purchase chicory granules on Amazon.