A Page from My Herbal: Common Chicory

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Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a welcome sight along roadsides, fields and waste places

Ah, the cheerful Chicory, brightening our roadsides and waste places in summer and fall! This pretty alien, originally from Europe, was introduced to North America and is now widespread. Although it is considered an invasive species, it’s still one of my favourite wildflowers.

Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a woody perennial, is a member of the dandelion family with blue, white or (rarely) pink flowers. Traditional names include blue daisyblue dandelionblue sailorsblueweedbunkcoffeeweed, cornflowerhendibehhorseweedragged sailorssuccorywild bachelor’s buttons and wild endive. Common chicory is related to curly endive (C. endivia), which is the familiar salad leaf; a variety, C. foliosum, is sometimes called radicchio or Belgian endive.

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An early advertising sign for R. Paterson & Sons’ Camp Coffee, a coffee + chicory syrup

Chicory in Folklore & Medicine:  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about chicory, citing it as part of a simple yet healthful diet. In European lore, its blue flower was a symbol of inspiration, hope and beauty and was believed able to open locked doors. Medicinal uses included treating wounds, gallstones, sinus infections and digestive issues. Native American Indians used it as a nerve tonic. The plant contains volatile oils which are effective in ridding animals of intestinal parasites, and as such, chicory is still an important forage food for livestock today. Chicory root extract is a dietary supplement.

Chicory in the Kitchen:  Chicory is high in inulin, a starch used in the food industry as a sweetener. It is also a good source of potassium and magnesium, and 3 cups of chopped leaves contain only 20 calories. Its sprouts, leaves, buds and flowers are added to many regional dishes of Europe, and the roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or additive to coffee (and even beer). Camp Coffee, for example, is a Scottish-made coffee and chicory essence in production since 1876. It was invented as a quick way of brewing coffee in the military and was the world’s first instant coffee. It became very popular in the U.K. in World War II and during times of coffee bean crop failures, and is still found in grocery stores today. The syrup can be used in many ways:  mix it with warm milk (as you would with cocoa) to make coffee or with cold milk for iced coffee. It can be added to baking such as coffee cake, or to flavour buttercream icing and other confectionery.

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Illus. by Gordon Morrison, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Lawrence Newcomb, Little, Brown & Co., 1977)

Ways to Use Chicory:

  • Add the raw young leaves and buds to salads. Flowers can be used for edible decoration.
  • Use in place of spinach; cooking reduces the bitterness.
  • Chicory Mustard Greens: Cook greens in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove and rinse under cold water; drain and coarsely chop, then sauté with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and (optional) anchovies until heated through; toss with vinaigrette and serve chilled or at room temperature.
  • Add to pasta.
  • Some coffee drinkers find that chicory adds a certain je ne sais quoi to their brew. Note that chicory coffee is not caffeine-free.
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