Chicory is a perennial grown as a leaf and root vegetable, or as a coffee substitute. The plants originated in the area around the Mediterranean sea: western Asia, southern Europe and northern Africa.1
Chicory is from the same group of plants that include dandelions, which in itself is a subset of the daisy family, Asteraceae.
The plant we know as Chicory, is one of two commonly-grown plants from the Chicorium species, the other we call ‘endive’ (an annual plant not covered here). It was probably taken to northern Europe by the Romans. Even then, it was a well-known plant; records show that its roots were being eaten in Ancient Egypt.2 The root is known to have been roasted, ground and mixed with coffee in the nineteenth century in France.2
The chicory root was popularised as a coffee substitute in New Orleans, after the plant was brought to America by French settlers. During the Civil War, blockades meant that getting coffee into Louisiana became difficult so substitutes were sought. Acorns and beets were used but it was the ground root of Chicorium intybus that proved to be the most popular. Drinks made from the roasted and ground root taste like coffee but don’t provide the caffeine ‘kick’.3 Using chicory as a substitute for coffee, therefore, is popular with coffee drinkers trying to lose the caffeine habit or just make better choices of what they put in their bodies.
Chicory was known to have been farmed on Phillip Island in Victoria in 1870 and, in 1878, the first kiln for drying the roots was built there.4
It is possible that chicory was being farmed in Western Australia or Tasmania before its establishment in Victoria.
DESCRIPTION OF PLANTS and SEEDS
The chicory plant is a narrow perennial that grows to about 100cm tall and 60cm wide. The branching stems carry leaves which are dark-green and similar in shape to dandelion leaves. It has unusual blue, daisy-like flowers. The seeds are brown in colour, sometimes mottled, 2-3cm long1, narrow at one end, wider at the other: like miniature cigars!
HOW TO GROW CHICORY
Chicory grows best in fertile soil. Sow seeds 5mm deep directly where you want them to grow or raise seedlings in spring or autumn. Germination should occur in 7 to 14 days. If the soil temperature is cold, germination may take a little longer. Transplant the seedlings about 30-40cm apart because the plants are tall and narrow; planted closer together they will support each other. The leaves can be harvested at anytime you feel they are big enough to use but be careful not to take leaves from the centre or crown of the plant. Roots should be ready to harvest in around 110 days or about 16 weeks.
If you are growing the plant only as a leaf vegetable you may not need more than one or two plants. Chicory is easy to use as a cut and come again salad vegetable, there is no need to harvest the whole plant. if growing it to harvest the roots, you will need to grow several plants and replant every time you harvest.
CULINARY and MEDICINAL USES
As mentioned before, chicory can be used as a leaf vegetable which will add a tangy flavour to your salad. Chicory, like its cousin, dandelion, is said to be a bitter herb. Foods which have bitter flavours are good for gut health and have mostly been eliminated from the standard Western diet in favour of savoury or sweet foods.5
Chicory roots can be boiled and are traditionally served with butter.6 Chicory roots can also be harvested. roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute.
A cup of raw chicory greens contains 1.4g of carbs (0.2 grams of net carbs), 0.1 grams of fat and 0.5 grams of protein. Chicory leaves are packed full of vitamins, minerals and trace minerals.7
The ‘bitter principle’ in chicory leaves is good for gut health, aids digestion and stimulates the appetite.5
Warning: chicory roots contain inulin which could cause flatulence and leave you feeling gassy and bloated. Add chicory root to your diet slowly and in small amounts.8
In traditional Italian medicine, the flowers have been used for treatment of common ailments such as gallstones, gastroenteritis, sinus problems, cuts and bruises. In Afghanistan, it was used in the treatment of malaria. Chicory seeds, known as “Kasni Beej” are one of the major ingredients of a commercial product used in India for the treatment of liver diseases. Liver diseases are also treated by the use of the roots in Serbia and India; and by the use of the leaves in Bosnia and Herzegovina.9
Chicory is an excellent feed source, even on acidic soils, and favoured by stock but must be ‘rotationally grazed’.7Our chickens love chicory leaves. Established chicory plants outcompete weeds.
In flower, chicory attracts pollinators: bees, beetles and flies.
Generally, chicory is resistant to pests; however, young plants are susceptible to attack by slugs and snails.
Chicorium intybus, common chicory, also known as blue dandelion, or coffee chicory, has been listed as an environmental weed in NSW. It has colonised along roadsides and in wastelands.11 It is recognised a a potential problem in Parramatta and Camden areas.
If you are not growing this plant for seed, please dead-head the fading flowers. This will have the added benefit of prolonging flowering and keeping the seeds out of unmanaged environments and our native bushland.
If collecting the seed to plant in the next growing season, as much as possible allow the flowers to stay on the plant until they have died naturally. In wet weather, you may need to collect the seed in a dry spell. Put the seed and plant parts upside-down into a paper bag and hang to dry in an airy location protected from the rain and, if possible, ambient humidity. The seed is not dry enough if any of the plant remains green and the seed is still attached to the plant. If the seed has fallen off the plant into the bottom of the bag, it is probably dry enough.
Reminder: sales from the Autumn catalogue close at midnight on 31 May.
Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Coordinator)
- Herbiguide, Chicory
- K. Annabelle Smith, The History of the Chicory Coffee Mix That New Orleans Made Its Own
- New Orleans Roast, History of Using Chicory
- Phillip Island and District Historical Society, The Chicory Industry on Phillip Island
- Laura Newcomer, Why you should be eating more bitter foods
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicory
- Eat This Much, Chicory
- Christy Brissette, Inulin is being added to a lot of food products. And that could be bothering your stomach.
- Renee A Street, Jasmeen Sidana and Gerhard Prinsloo, Cichorium intybus: Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, and Toxicology
- NSW Department of Primary Industries, Chicory Part B – The chicory plant, cultivars, and advantages/disadvantages in pasture
- New South Wales Flora Online, Chicorium intybus L.