Chicory, a common roadside plant many of us know, undergoes a transformation each morning that is magical. Chicory when mature grows to about 3-4 feet and is covered with bright blue flowers, or more rarely white or pink. Throughout the day they fade and become muted. But in the early morning, the flowers are a pure brilliant blue color, so soft and radiant that it looks as if the mountain sky took special favor on them.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is not only a beautiful perennial wildflower but is also an important wild edible plant whose root has been prized and utilized for many years as a substitute for coffee. Other varieties have been cultivated as a forage crop for cattle and for specialty salad leaves. Native to Europe, western Asia and North Africa, chicory has naturalized and become a common roadside plant throughout North America since its introduction into our landscape. Some of its common names are blue sailors, coffee weed and wild cornflower.
Chicory is one of the earliest plants recorded; it is known to have been cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt. Medieval monks began growing the plants when coffee became popular in Europe. The Dutch love chicory and have a number of instant chicory beverages in their grocery stores. Chicory has been used extensively in Europe as an additive to coffee and as a coffee substitute when the taproots are dried, ground and brewed. Chicory was used by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War as a coffee substitute and in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Called “camp coffee,” a blend of chicory and coffee used by soldiers has been on the market now since 1885. Thirty years ago a good friend and I dug and dried wild chicory roots, slow roasted them in the oven and ground them; we mixed the ground chicory with coffee to take on our camping trips, and it was quite good.
Wild chicory leaves are rather bitter raw but the Italians and Greeks blanch the greens to reduce the bitterness. More often, specific varieties are cultivated in gardens for different purposes. My grandmother used to sauté chicory leaves with garlic, anchovies and fava beans. She also loved curly endive (Cichorium endivia, a closely related species) as a salad green and cooked vegetable. Cultivated chicory is prized in Belgium, where they export vast quantities of Belgian endive which they call “witloof”. Belgian endives are root sprouts of chicory that are grown in complete darkness and are delicious braised, grilled or stuffed with goat cheese and herbs. The French also love these root sprouts, which they refer to as “chicon,” and of which they are the largest exporters worldwide. Another variety of cultivated chicory, red chicory or Radicchio, has a mild, bitter and spicy flavor that mellows when roasted or grilled and is a colorful addition to salads or grilled vegetables. In addition to its various culinary uses, roasted chicory is used by some specialty beer brewers to add flavor to stouts and ales.
Chicory is also used medicinally, as the root has compounds that are toxic to internal parasites and worms. Studies have shown that farm animals that eat chicory fodder have a reduced number of parasites. In Europe, chicory has been used as a tonic and treatment for human ailments such as gallstones, sinus problems and cuts or bruises. Chicory also contains inulin, which aids in calcium and mineral absorption, is beneficial to diabetics and may even promote weight loss.
In European folklore, Chicory was used to “open locked doors,” and its flowers are considered to be the inspiration for “the Blue Flower” as a symbol of love in the Romantic period. This morning, after a night of gentle rain, the chicory growing along our pine woods border is such an electric blue that the flowers seem to be illuminated from within. The flowers may fade by the end of the day, but their gift is that by the next morning, the woodland borders and roadsides will be filled with a new crop of these lovely sky blue flowers.