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How to grow and use chicory, an herb for modern times

Chicory is a very useful plant with pretty blue flowers.
Kim Willis

Chicory, (Cichorium intybus) grows just about everywhere in the US but it’s not a native plant. Like the dandelion it was brought over here by European settlers. Its origins are from central Europe. In its first year it forms a rosette of leaves and a long straight tan taproot like a carrot. The leaves are similar to dandelion leaves. In the second and subsequent years it will put up long stems of blue flowers in late summer unless it is kept mowed or grazed. Leaves and stems may leak a milky sap when broken. Chicory reproduces from seed.

Chicory flowers are blue and daisy like although the plant is rather straggly and not much to look at in the garden setting, the flowers can look quite pretty along the roads and meadows mixed with white Queen Anne’s lace and yellow goldenrod. Occasionally chicory may have pink, purple or white flowers. Each flower opens and closes at the same time each day and chicory is sometimes used in floral clocks. Common names include blue daisy, blue sailors, and coffeeweed. The type of chicory used as greens is sometimes called Belgian endive, and a red form is called radicchio.

Using chicory

If you have eaten a FiberOne bar you have eaten chicory. The roots of this lovely roadside weed with its daisy-like blue flowers yields an interesting food additive, inulin. Inulin is a sugar molecule with a different makeup than other sugars, a sugar molecule that doesn’t cause a rise in blood sugar levels when consumed. Inulin also imparts a smooth creamy mouth feel to foods that allows food makers to reduce fats and it adds dietary fiber in the form of indigestible carbs called fructans. So much fiber in fact that if you eat FiberOne bars you may have experienced some of the gastrointestinal side effects, (they cause a lot of gas), especially if you pigged out because they taste so good.

The fructans in inulin also cause the digestive system to absorb more calcium and magnesium, and studies show they can help prevent osteoporosis. They also stimulate the production of intestinal bifidobacteria, the good bacteria in our guts that help us digest food properly and ramp up our immune system. Fructans are being added to some yogurts that promise to build good intestinal bacteria. And if you start with small amounts of food with fructans or inulin you build up tolerance to the gastro effects and won’t blow everyone out of the room.

In other countries inulin powder is being widely used in dairy products like ice cream, baked goods, cereals and granola bars. It reduces the need for sugar and fat and doesn’t cause the problems associated with other artificial sweeteners and fat substitutes in the cooking/preparation process and it doesn’t have an unpleasant taste. It can be used exactly like sugar, although it isn’t quite as sweet. It is an excellent substitute for high fructose corn syrup.

Inulin has been pushed as a good food additive for diabetics for many years. Besides chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic and a few other foods also contain inulin. Agave is the newest inulin producer, being promoted in more tropical areas. Most food grade inulin is being produced from chicory roots however and the largest factories producing it are in the Netherlands and France.

There is a company in the US that is producing inulin for pet foods, but the US is slow to get behind this product, probably because we have so many sugar producing plants in the US that aren’t happy about a new rival. Idaho and Nebraska however have studies in place to see if chicory can become an economically important crop.

Inulin is produced much like sugar is produced from sugar beets and sugar beet factories could easily be converted to inulin production. Harvesting equipment for chicory roots can be adapted from beet harvesting equipment. But US farmers do not like perennial crops, and chicory is a perennial plant. Still there is hope that this valuable plant could become another money making crop for US farmers.

Other Chicory uses

Chicory is being studied as a forage crop for livestock and is getting good reviews. Chicory has as much protein as alfalfa, high amounts of vitamins and minerals and evens inhibits the growth of intestinal worms in livestock. Livestock enjoy eating chicory and well managed fields produce as much forage as alfalfa and specially selected pasture grasses. It also grows well in poor soil and under drought conditions. (You can see that as chicory grows well along dusty road edges.) In New Zealand chicory is widely used as a forage crop and named varieties have been developed. West Virginia in the US is sponsoring several large forage trials of chicory.

People have been eating a type of chicory that forms loose heads of leaves, called wiltlof chicory for hundreds of years and it is still a specialty greens crop. The dried and ground roots of chicory have long been used as a coffee substitute or additive. Some people even prefer the chicory coffee over regular coffee. Beer brewers sometimes add chicory root powder to beers, especially Belgian style ales.

In Germany the chicory flower is much used in herbal medicine and is claimed to cure almost any ailment. It is said that chicory can magically open locked doors. Bruised chicory leaves have long been used as a poultice for wounds and bruises. The leaves of chicory are used to make a blue dye.

As a caution, in herbal remedies chicory has been used as an emmenagogue and abortifacient. That means the herb was used to bring on a menstrual period or cause an abortion. Anyone who is pregnant may want to avoid the use of chicory in herbal remedies or as a coffee drink although using products containing commercial inulin is perfectly safe.

You may want to consider allowing some chicory to grow in your garden as a helpful herb. Remember not to forage for wild herbs along roadsides as the plants accumulate toxins from auto exhaust and products applied to the road and may have been sprayed with herbicides.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

How to grow Jewelweed

How to grow and use lemon verbena

How to store summer bulbs through the winter

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