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The Fourth of July is known for fireworks. Some of the most spectacular fireworks happen along the roadsides when bright blue chicory flowers burst open. But only in the mornings. By the afternoon, the flowers have closed, not to open again until the following morning.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the dandelion family. It is native to Eurasia. European colonists brought it to North America for use as a medicinal herb. It adapted so well to its new environment that it is considered invasive in several states.
Chicory has been used medicinally for 5,000 years. The milky sap of the plants was once used to promote milk flow in nursing mothers or to lessen it if there was too much. Bruised leaves were used as a poultice to reduce swelling. Root extracts were used as laxatives and diuretics.
Once established and naturalized in this country and other continents settled by Europeans such as Australia and New Zealand, chicory was used as forage for cattle, horses, sheep, rabbits and poultry. Because it doesn't dry well like hay, chicory is cut and fed as green plants to livestock. Modern science has determined that the tannins in chicory are toxic to intestinal parasites that plague livestock. Animals who are fed chicory have fewer worms.
Ranchers who raise horses consider the roots an excellent substitute for more expensive oats because of their fat and protein content.
Chicory is a perennial plant, hardy in zones 3 through 8, that grows in full sun and any kind of soil. Chicory grows like dandelions, with a long taproot and a rosette of leaves. The leaves can be eaten in salads. They are bitter like dandelions, so it is best to use young leaves which are less bitter, rather than the older larger leaves. Unlike dandelions, chicory sends up a stiff stalk 2 to 5 feet tall with leaves and flowers. Bloomtime is July through October. The flowers open in the morning and close about five hours later. This is because they are pollinated by bees which are most active in the mornings. On cloudy days, the flowers may stay open longer or all day.
The roots are also edible. When boiled, they taste like parsnips. The roots are most often roasted until brittle and brown, then ground and brewed like coffee. Prepared this way, the roots taste like coffee but without the caffeine.
Chicory has a long history of being used as a coffee substitute or additive. Its use became common in the South during the Civil War when Union naval blockades made coffee scarce. What once was a necessity has become a custom. Coffee with chicory added is now the signature drink of New Orleans.
So-called Camp Coffee, coffee and chicory, has been available in England since 1885. It gained in popularity there during the Second World War when coffee and other commonly used foods and drinks were rationed.
Chicory is easily grown from seed. Most gardeners purchase seed from catalogs that specialize in native plants or wild flowers. If you live in Colorado, you will not be able to get the seeds. Many states don't allow catalogs to ship seeds of invasive plants to their residents. Chicory is considered invasive in Colorado and companies are not allowed to ship the seed to Colorado addresses.
You can sow your seeds in the spring after your last frost when the soil temperature reaches 65⁰F to 75⁰F. Surface sow the seeds which means that you want to just sprinkle them on top of the soil. The seeds need light to germinate so you don't want to cover them. They will germinate best if they have good contact with the soil. The best way to achieve that is to lightly tamp the seeds into the soil. An easy and fun way to do it is to walk over the seeds in your garden! Sow the seeds 6 inches apart in rows that are 2 feet apart. Germination should occur within 1 to 3 weeks after sowing.
You can also start your seeds indoors 5 to 6 weeks before your last frost. Surface sow the seeds. Don’t cover them. They need light to germinate. Tamp them down gently on top of the soil so that they have good contact with the soil. Keep them moist and they should germinate in 1 to 3 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost when the soil temperature reaches 65⁰F to 75⁰F.
Chicory leaves are ready to harvest when the plant is 12 to 18 inches tall. You can either use a sharp knife and cut the plant off at soil level, leaving the root or you can just pull up the entire plant and cut off the root afterwards.
The leaves can be stored in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for a week.
Harvest time for the roots is late summer. If you want to harvest the roots for use a coffee substitute, it is best to use a shovel, rather than pulling up the plant by hand. If pull up the plant by hand, you most likely won’t get the entire root. With a shovel, you can dig deep enough to get the whole root.
Once you have dug up your roots, clean the soil off of them. A scrub brush works best to remove all of the soil. Then you can either shred the roots using a peeler or cut them into small pieces. The roots will roast more evenly if they are in small pieces rather than whole.
Spread the pieces in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet. Parchment paper is necessary because you don’t want the chicory to touch the metal pan. Metal will react with the oils in the roots and change the taste.
Roast the roots in a 350⁰F oven for 90 minutes until they are brown and crispy. Store the roasted roots as you would coffee beans. Grind them when you are ready to use them.
© 2017 Caren White
Caren White (author) on July 21, 2017:
Dora, thank you for reading and commenting!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 21, 2017:
Very useful information. Thank you for sharing the facts about chicory and its benefits.
Caren White (author) on July 20, 2017:
Bronwen, thanks for sharing that info. Fascinating. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on July 20, 2017:
During World War II chicory was grown on Phillip Island and other places in Australia; it was used as a coffee substitute when it was almost impossible to get the real thing.
Thanks for an interesting article.
Caren White (author) on July 20, 2017:
Alicia, I agree! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2017:
I think that chicory flowers are so pretty. Thanks for sharing the interesting information about the plant.
Caren White (author) on July 18, 2017:
Neither did I! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 18, 2017:
That was really interesting to read. I had no idea chicory had so many benefits.