Plant of the Week
Latin: Cichorium intybus
Roadside wildflowers never fail to delight nature lovers as they move about Arkansas in the spring and summer. But for purists, these wildflowers are an abomination because few are native.
One of these showy weeds or wildflowers - depending on your personal biases - now in bloom is chicory (Cichorium intybus). Where did it come from and how did it get so widely spread?
Chicory is a member of the daisy family and a close relative of dandelion. It's a perennial herb with a long, dandelion-like taproot and a whorl of oblong, broadly toothed, milky-sapped leaves. When it flowers, it produces 3- to 5-foot tall, erect, zig-zagging flowering stems with vestiges of a few leaves and a profusion of sky-blue flowers.
The flowers are multi-petaled and produced during much of the late spring and summer period. The 50 cent-sized blossoms open as the day awakens but close as the heat of the day becomes intense. Plants remain in bloom for several months and a field of chicory viewed in the right light looks like a heavy fog settled in a valley. Like dandelion, the seeds are spread freely by wind. Also, like dandelion, the foliage is concentrated in a whorl of leaves just above the soil surface so plants tolerate highway department mowing without flinching.
Chicory came to us from Europe, probably arriving with the first European settlers. Many of our common roadside weeds, including chicory, are found in every state and have long been naturalized here. A theory I’ve heard is that they may have been mixed in with the hay and bedding that was used to bring over the first animals that our forefathers brought when the colonies were established on the East coast.
Like dandelion, chicory has been grown since ancient times as a pot herb. Until recently, chicory seems to have enjoyed limited use in the American cuisine, except for areas with a large ethnic population from southern Europe. With our new health-conscious life styles and more disposable income, fancy salad mixes that include baby Italian dandelion leaves (cutleaf selections of chicory) or radicchio (purplish leaves with white veins) are often found.
French endive is produced by digging a virginal taproot and forcing it in late winter to produce a whorl of leaves in the dark. The more common endive is from the related species, C. endivia. In the 1988 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis suggested the salvation for American agriculture was for farmers to give up their traditional crops and look at alternatives. He suggested endive could be the answer, but as far as I know, no Arkansas cotton farmers made the switch.
But when most of us think of chicory, we are thinking of coffee, not vegetable greens. The use of roasted chicory roots as an adulterant for coffee seems to be a French thing, possibly starting during the Napoleonic era when supplies of coffee were disrupted during the Revolution. In the U.S., chicory-laced coffee is found primarily in New Orleans.
The principle ingredients of chicory root are two polysaccharide, inulin and fructose. When roasted, inulin is converted to oxymethylfurfurol, a compound with a coffee-like aroma.
Two bitter principles found in the root, lactucin and lactucopicrin, were shown in a lab-rat experiment half a decade ago to have sedative properties. Apparently, the claims that chicory-laced coffee counteracts the stimulant properties of caffeine trace back to this report. The current coffee craze that is sweeping the land had its roots in Seattle, not New Orleans, so you'll have to travel south or buy your brew over the Internet if you want that Cajun specialty.
Dr. Craig Andersen, a UA horticulturist, tells me that radicchio and Italian dandelion selections of chicory are becoming more common in southern vegetable gardens, but they're primarily grown as a cool season crop.
Seeds are planted in the early fall for a winter crop of greens or in the early spring with leaves of harvest size in about 60 days. Chicory will grow in the most difficult roadside situation, so any garden soil will work for growing the plant. A detailed discussion of growing chicory as a vegetable can be found at http://www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/PDF/FSA-6081.pdf
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - June 25, 2004
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.