Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners: Shades of Spring

Gardeners from around the world share their experiences with the herbal bitters of the Jewish passover, new gardening techniques and herbs, sharing your garden with visitors, and cutting fresh salad greens.

| April/May 1997

The quest for chicory

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia—Passover, which begins on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (April 22), is also a spring harvest festival. In the Middle East, spring is a hot season of ripening grain, but here in Nova Scotia, spring is more like late winter, and the harvest is months away. The landscape is a semifrozen wasteland of decayed vegetation, muted browns and grays, with barely a hint of new, green life. In Israel, the barley is now ripe and ready to cut (a stage called aviv, the Hebrew word for spring), but for our own crop of timothy, which we grow for hay, we wait until late June, when the flower spike is swelling the stem but has not yet broken into bloom (we say it is “in the boot”). We are really out of sync with biblical Passover time, but we adjust our celebration according to our landscape.

Several years ago, I set out to find maror, the authentic bitter herbs at the first Passover meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread mentioned in the Book of Exodus. I discovered that the true bitter herbs are considered to be five common weeds (chicory is one) that reflect the Exodus story in their growth cycle. They break through the ground in the winter, and their sweet, low-to-the-ground, succulent leaves may then be gathered for salad. By spring, these plants have undergone a transformation and now are small, very bitter leaves growing from a hard stem. Under ordinary circumstances, no one would eat them, certainly not raw, but it is precisely at this stage that they are eaten at the Passover seder—a combined service and festive meal—to remind us of the bitterness of slavery.

The purpose of using the bitter herbs to teach the Exodus story is succinctly preserved in the Talmud, the ancient Jewish compilation of laws and commentaries: “See this bitter herb, whose beginning is sweet, whose end is bitter—thus were the Egyptians.” That is, first the Egyptians welcomed the Children of Israel, then they enslaved them, just as the plants themselves are transformed from sweet and soft to bitter and hard. By eating these very bitter greens in an amount equal in bulk to an olive, Jews are meant to remember their days of slavery—and by association, their collective and individual journey to freedom, from darkness to light. Remembering is the link that ties us to our past and guides us in the present and future.

Before I knew or cared anything about chicory (Cichorium intybus) as an authentic bitter herb of Passover, I admired it as a wildflower. Although sparse at first, local populations have grown, spreading out from the railroad crossing several miles from the farm, bearing their shaggy sky blue daisies in thin drifts along the roadside in midsummer. I plant the cultivar ‘Magdeburg’ for its thick, white roots, which I roast to make a coffee substitute. It’s a lot of work, but rewarding, to dig up the first-year roots, clean and cut them up, slowly roast them to dark brown, and then grind them like coffee beans. I top each measure of ground coffee with ground chicory to make a strong beverage, to which I add rich Jersey milk cocoa—a great way to start the morning.

Over the years, I’ve left enough roots in the ground to ensure that second-year plants will bear a fine crop of blue flowers. As one of the plants in Linnaeus’s clock garden, chicory opens with the morning sun and closes in the afternoon, except on cloudy days when it ­remains open. Last summer it bloomed with ‘Autumn Beauty’ sunflowers, an unplanned but winning combination.

Since learning the identity of the ­bitter herbs, I still dig chicory roots and admire its summer blooms, but it has become an important, necessary part of my landscape, not just an occa­sional source of food, a pretty wildflower. Searching for chicory on a cold, windy day in April (late April this year) is far removed from the barley harvest in Israel, but on another level, the physical disparities are unimportant. Just as the Children of Israel, after their exodus from Egypt and sojourn in the desert, became the first grain of God’s harvest, so I, too, reach a spiritual plane when I push aside the cold earth and pluck the tiny leaves that we will soon eat in memory of past bitterness.

—Jo Ann Gardner

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