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Chicory Chicanery

By Audrey Stallsmith

Cichorium sativa

Show me a piece of land that God forgot—
a strip between an unused sidewalk, say,
and a bulldozed lot, rich in broken glass—
and there, July on, will be chicory,

John Updike--"Chicory"

Many people have reacted bitterly to chicory over the years--an appropriate reaction, since the plant is bitter itself.  Its roasted and ground root has often been used to adulterate coffee, leaving those who prefer the real thing steaming!

"No living orator," Anthony Trollope writes in Orley Farm, "would convince a grocer that coffee should be sold without chicory; and no amount of eloquence will make an English lawyer think that loyalty to truth should become before loyalty to his client."  And a Dr. Leclerc complains that chicory "transforms the most delicious mocha into a bitter pharmaceutical potion that makes a gourmet's taste buds stand on end."

On the other hand, a good case could be made that chicory is better for you than coffee anyway!  It's also easier to grow than those beans, which must be imported.  No wonder it stands for frugality in the Language of Flowers!  The residents of Louisiana even seem to prefer their coffee with this particular additive.  But their French forebears were always fond of chicory which is, when you come right down to it, just a type of endive.

It's official title--cichorium intybus--derives from the ancient Egyptian name for the plant, since it originated in the Middle East.  Intybus is probably a corruption of hendibeh or January, which is apparently the best time to harvest this "bitter herb" in that climate.

Chicory can grow almost anywhere, but prefers well-drained, gravelly or limey soils, which could be why it's often found along roadways.  We gardeners have a weakness for this wildflower, as it is one of the few plants whose blooms can be called true blue--though that color varies somewhat  with the weather.  Be sure to watch for it in the morning, however, as those flowers "close up shop" around noon.  Strangely enough, it is the leaves rather than the blooms which can be used to produce a blue dye.

The chicory plant is often compared to the also bitter dandelion and--like it--is best eaten when young and tender.  It is, in fact, sometimes known as "blue dandelion," its flowers being about the same size and its leaves also similar--but more coarse and hairy.  Other common names for the plant include blue daisy, blue sailors, wild endive, coffeeweed, witloof, or succory. 

Succory may derive from the Latin succurrere ("to run under"), in reference to the long tap root.  When young, it can be boiled like a parsnip.  In France, chicory roots are often placed in covered boxes over the winter, and the blanched foliage harvested as a salad herb.  When white, the leaves reportedly taste much sweeter.

In ancient times, a confection called violet plates reportedly involved the pounding together of violet and chicory flowers with honey or sugar.  I have to wonder, however, how anyone managed to harvest flowers from both types of plants at the same time--since violets bloom in spring here, with chicory generally holding off until mid or late summer.

When grown on a large scale, it has been used as a fodder plant and in the production of fructose and the flavor enhancer maltol.  Chicory has also treated almost every health problem out there.  James Duke reports that, in mice, a chicory extract can protect the liver from overdoses of acetaminophen.  The plant is also tonic, laxative, and diuretic, lowers blood sugar, and decreases cholesterol.  Being high in inulin, it protects the immune system as well.

Don't rush out and start taking it every day, however.  Some old herbals warn that excesses can cause congestion in the head and digestive system, as well as dimming of the vision.  And it can also inhibit the action of some prescription drugs.

Perhaps due to the flower's magical color, folklore holds that chicory can open doors into unseen worlds.  Cichoric acid may also open doors in the medical world, since it reportedly helps inhibit the spread of viruses such as AIDS.  In the meantime, however, most of us just can't resist the flower that William Carlos Williams compared to the sea swaying "peacefully upon its plantlike stem." 

Cichorium sativa image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elisabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.