Herb to Know: Chicory

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Photo by David Cavagnaro

Cichorium intybus
• Hardy to Zone 3

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a multipurpose hardy perennial herb: In the garden, it gives off a fragrance of fresh field greens; in the kitchen, its young bittersweet basal leaves — rich in iron, calcium and copper — delight the taste buds; and cooks can grind the caramel-scented taproot and serve it raw or add it to cooked dishes.

Chicory is a relative of endive, and it produces tight, light green and white heads that bring a tangy flavor to salads when braised or eaten raw. Old-time herbalists recommended a cup of this herb as a weight-loss vegetable, as it has been known historically as an appetite suppressant. Cook the roots and green, arrow-shaped leaves as a potherb, or serve them steamed or boiled and seasoned with butter, fruit and spices.

The Egyptians, and later the Arabs, made great use of chicory leaves. During times of the Pharaohs, herbalists added chicory juice to rose oil and vinegar to treat headaches and prescribed it with wine to relieve digestive problems. The taproot was used as a tonic and a diuretic to relieve water retention and help reduce obesity.

Europeans began cultivating chicory around the early 17th century, and its popularity as a weight-loss vegetable grew in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. During Napoleon’s blockade of European ports, nurses treated wounded soldiers for inflammation with a poultice made from bruised chicory leaves. Napoleon’s armies used raw and ground chicory root like chewing tobacco because of its bittersweet taste.

In the 19th century, chicory was introduced to the United States. Although chicory has never gained much popularity here, its roots and leaves are commercially marketed and sometimes sold in supermarkets. Chicory buds are often pickled, and the leaves and roots can be dried; chopped and eaten raw; or boiled and mixed with sweeter greens and relish. Chicory is popular in New Orleans’ blended coffee — the caramel-flavored root is caffeine-free.

The first harvest can occur in 60 days. The perennial plants produce clear, blue-fluted petals in the toothed-base leaf joints from midsummer to mid-autumn. Crafters should gather flower heads in July to be dried and used in potpourri. Collect roots during rainy weather in the late autumn and bunch to dry.

These fast-growing plants need a moisture-retentive, rich alkaline soil. Chicory tolerates frost and you can grow it during the winter in a greenhouse or cellar, much like dandelions. Chicory flowers open with regularity and close five hours later, making them well-suited to display in floral clocks. The opening times relate to latitude, and the leaves always align north.

To sow seeds directly, plant them about 1/4 inch deep in spring or fall. Apply two handfuls of fish and bone meal two to three weeks before you start sowing. Most varieties will grow to 2 to 4 feet, so place them where they will not overshadow lower-growing crops.

For a diuretic tea, infuse 1 teaspoon ground rootstock or dried herb with 1 cup of cold water and steep two to three minutes to bring out the coffee taste.

Anita B. Stone is a certified master gardener, horticultural therapist and partners an herb business in North Carolina. She recently has implemented a horticultural program for healthcare professionals.