Herb to Know: Chicory

Use chicory for cooking or grind and brew it with coffee.


| June/July 1995



Chicory


Chicory, also known as succory, blue-sailors, or ragged-sailors, is a hardy perennial native to Eurasia but naturalized throughout much of North America south to Florida and California. It is common along roadsides and in waste places, especially in limestone soils. The genus Cichorium contains eight or nine species, all 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 (rarely pink or white) and are made up of sixteen to twenty straplike, toothed ray flowers. They are primarily bee-pollinated. The blossoms open early in the morning and close 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 colour of the petals is changed into a brilliant red by the acid of ants, if placed on an ant-hill.” The tops make a dyestuff that gives a variety of colorfast yellows and greens, depending on the mordant used. In the “language of flowers”, chicory symbolizes frugality.

Medicinal Uses

For at least 5000 years, chicory has been cultivated 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 color of the flowers and their tendency to close at noon (in England) as if in sleep 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 it has since been shown to increase the flow of bile, which could be helpful in cases of gallstones. Laboratory research has also 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 effects but are weaker. The leaves boiled in broth were once prescribed to strengthen “hot, weak, and feeble stomachs”.

Other Uses

Chicory came early to America with the colonists as a medicinal herb, but Jefferson and others grew it as a forage crop, as had been done on the Continent. 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.

On the Continent, 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.) Forcing roots, usually done indoors in the dark, produces tops that are more tender and less bitter than those grown outdoors would be. It is also a way of prolonging the gardening season in areas with cold winters. Storage temperatures can be manipulated to keep new chicons coming for several months.





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