Herb to Know: Chicory

Chicory is an age-old herb that was originally used medicinally.


| June/July 2004



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Cichorium intybus Family Compositae Hardy perennial

Karen Shelton

Just about any visitor to New Orleans has tasted an obligatory cup of the city’s signature blend of coffee and chicory. But chicory’s varieties and uses extend far beyond a slow Sunday brunch at Café du Monde. Chicory, also known as succory, blue-sailors and ragged-sailors, is a hardy perennial native to Eurasia but was transplanted and now grows naturally throughout North America, south to Florida and west to California. It is common along roadsides and in other wild, untamed areas, especially in limestone soils. All species in the genus Cichorium are native to Eurasia. The words chicory, succory, Cichorium and intybus are all derived from Greek or Latin names for the herb.

Chicory resembles dandelion in its deep taproot and rosette of toothed basal leaves; unlike dandelion, it puts up a stiff, hairy flower stalk clothed sparsely with small, clasping leaves. Stalks may grow 2 to 5 feet tall and branch several times. Stalkless flower heads 1 1/2 inches wide form singly or in twos or threes in the axils of the stem leaves in midsummer. They are clear blue (or, rarely, pink or white) and consist of 16 to 20 strap-like, toothed ray flowers. Blossoms are primarily bee-pollinated and open early in the morning and close about five hours later. Linnaeus, observing this tendency, planted chicory in his floral clock in Uppsala, Sweden. (There, the flowers opened at 5 a.m. and closed at 10 a.m.) Flowers may stay open longer on cloudy days. The herbalist Mrs. C.F. Leyel has observed that “the lovely blue color of the petals is changed into a brilliant red by the acid of ants, if placed on an ant-hill.” The plant tops make a dyestuff that produces a variety of colorfast yellows and greens, depending on the mordant used. In the language of flowers, chicory symbolizes frugality.

Medicinal Uses For Chicory

For at least 5,000 years, people have cultivated chicory for its medicinal benefits. According to the “doctrine of signatures” (a renaissance theory that a plant’s appearance indicates its healing properties) the milky sap of chicory demonstrated its efficacy in promoting milk flow in nursing mothers, or perhaps diminishing it if it were too abundant; it seems to have been prescribed for both conditions. The blue of the blossoms and their tendency to close as if in sleep at noon (in England) suggested the plant’s use in treating inflamed eyes. The bruised leaves have been poulticed on swellings. Root extracts have been used as a diuretic and laxative, and to treat fevers and jaundice. The second-century physician Galen called chicory a “friend of the liver,” and contemporary research has shown that it can increase the flow of bile, which could be helpful in treating gallstones. Laboratory research also has shown root extracts to be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and slightly sedative. They also slow and weaken the pulse and lower blood sugar. Leaf extracts have similar, though weaker, effects.

Chicory: A Colonial Crop

Chicory came early to the United States with the colonists as a medicinal herb, but Thomas Jefferson and others grew it as a forage crop. Because it doesn’t dry well, it was usually cut and fed green to horses, cattle, sheep, poultry and rabbits.

A compound called maltol (3-hydroxyl-2-methyl-4-pyrone) from chicory (as well as larch bark, pine needles and roasted malt) is used in baked goods to intensify the flavor of sugar 30-to-300-fold.

The appreciation for chicory as a culinary herb dates back at least to Roman times, and growers over the years have developed dozens of improved cultivars that scarcely resemble the scrawny roadside weed. These include heading chicories such as radicchio; loose-leaf chicory; root chicory, grown either for cooking like parsnips or for roasting to make a coffee substitute; and witloof, or Belgian endive, the roots of which are forced to produce elongated shoots called chicons. (The vegetable known as endive — not to be confused with Belgian endive — belongs to the annual or biennial C. endivia and is cultivated for its leaves. Curly-leaved forms are called frisée, while broad-leaved forms are known as escarole or Batavian endive.)





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