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The Monday Garden
Invaders' Salad: Chicory

Issue No. 168 - June 12, 2005
by Sue Sweeney

Where ever Eurasian humans have gone, they have taken chicory with them as well as such other mixed blessings as garlic mustard, house cats, and Norway rats. Accordingly, North American humans share the joy of sky-blue chicory along a hot, dusty road in mid-summer (and also share the work of weeding it out of the vegetable garden) with other members of their species in temperate regions as far way as Algeria, Albania; Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Austria, and Australia (just to survey the A’s).
Picture: chicory flower with a small insect, probably a beneficial, insect-eating predatory. Bedford Street, Stamford CT June 2004.
"Hardy" is a woefully insufficient word to describe chicory, pictured below in the "lawn" of my local police station during the severe drought of 2002. Like that other European invader, Queen Anne's lace of the carrot clan, chicory is blessed (or armed, depending on your point-of-view) with a deep taproot. Indeed, during a late summer drought in the Northeast, Queen Anne’s lace and chicory are often only plants blooming along the roadside.
Picture: chicory surviving the drought at the Stamford, CT Police Station, Summer 2002.
Chicory (cichorium intybus) (also called “blue sailors”) is a member of the daisy (composite) family (also know as the aster-sunflower family, etc.). Chicory is sibling of the cultivated endive (Cichorium endivia ) (Chinese), and a cousin of the dandelion (European). Chicory's leaves resemble those of its dandelion cousin. Like the other “wild lettuces”, chicory has a white milky sap and its seeds are spread by wind and bird. Interestingly, chicory flowers, which last only a day, open and close at set times, making chicory useful as a "floral clock".

Humans have probably used chicory for medicine and food as long as there have been humans in Eurasia. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian writings are said to refer to chicory as a specific for the liver, and for the urinary and digestive tracks, and as well as a poultice for external inflammations. Today, it is reported that modern studies with animals confirm that chicory may be able to lower pulse rate and reduce cholesterol. (If you’re going to opt for an herbal remedy, please apply common sense: do your homework and thoroughly check multiple sources on the item first).

Picture: chicory’s basal rosettes lurking in the lawn of the Stamford, CT Police Station, June 2005. These are the same plants pictured in the 2002 shot above or some of the children.
In the U.S.A., today, we use chicory in New Orleans-style coffee, and include it in fresh salad mixes at fancy restaurants, often under the name “Belgium endive” or “radicchio”. Our rabbits are reputed to be very fond of it, and it is being promoted as a prebiotic digestive aid for dogs. It is said that farmers can be economically damaged by the wild chicory because chicory can contaminate seed; accordingly, in a few states, chicory has “noxious weed” status. Whether chicory is truly a harmful invader like garlic mustard or Norway maple is another story.

The Europeans blanch chicory for salad. Blanching, a process often used with asparagus, is done by growing the plant in the dark which keeps the leaves pale and mild in flavor. Blanching can be done outdoors by keeping the young chicory plants covered with soil, and indoors by sprouting chicory roots in a dark, cool place.

Several countries use chicory for animal fodder. In New Zealand, chicory is planted as a cover crop between the rows in grape arbors so that the long taproots can absorb excess water, making the grapes sweeter. In old times, the flowers were used as a blue dye, and the roots, with other chemicals, were used for a yellow dye.

For The Monday Garden’s "Eat An Invader Today" Club, try oranges and chicory salad with a poppy seed dressing, or tomatoes and chicory with vinaigrette dressing. (However, be very careful about your plant source: never eat plants growing near road, driveways, or parking lots where the soil has been exposed to heavy metals from car exhausts, or from under roof-eaves that often drip with roof chemicals, uncultivated places used from dumping, and, while we’re at it, some lawn and garden chemicals are potentially pretty serious stuff, too. )

Enjoy chicory but don't over indulge. While the highly-respected Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products says, categorically, that at least the chicory-root “is free of harmful ingredients”, like many foods with strong medical properties, chicory might not be good for you in large quantities.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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