Chicory: All About This Source Of Healthy (Caffeine-free) Coffee

A patch of chicory (Cichorium intybus) growing at the side of the road wouldn’t garner much attention until summers when it blooms with bright blue blossoms.

Although the plant isn’t native to the States, it has adapted to the region and grows quite invasively in most areas. It isn’t uncommon to find the variety growing wild along roadsides.

But what is the chicory plant, what are its origins, and is it any good besides the ornamental flowers? Continue reading, and you’ll find out all about the species!

Chicory is a herbaceous perennial from the Asteraceae family. It’s native to Europe but has also made itself at home in North America, Australia, and China. Common chicory goes by many names. It’s often called blue dandelion, blue daisy, blueweed, coffee weed, horseweed, blue sailors, and more. The word ‘chicory’ is also sometimes used for C. endivia, curly endive. These two closely related species are often confused.

Chicory is an edible plant, and the leaves are consumed just like other leafy vegetables. Roots are served baked or roasted, often complemented with butter. Roasted, ground chicory roots are also a popular coffee substitute. It’s either brewed and served on its own or included in coffee to enhance the flavors.

Common NameChicory, Common Chicory, Blue Daisy, Coffee Weed, Blueweed, etc.
Botanical NameCichorium Intybus
Plant TypeA Perennial Vegetable
Size (Fully Grown)Up To 4 Feet (About 1,22 Meters) Tall
Sun ExposureFrom Full Sun To Partial Shade
Soil TypeA Fertile Soil That Drains Well
Soil pHFrom 5.5 To 7.0
Flower ColorBlue, White, Or Pink
U.S. Hardiness Zones3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, And 10
Native AreaEurope

How Many Chicory Varieties Are There?

There are several different wild and cultivated varieties under the species Cichorium intybus, and many of them grow wild. The root chicory is cultivated for its roots, while leaf chicory is grown as a leafy green. Primarily, there are three subspecies under the name Cichorium intybus. These include:

C. Intybus L. Var. Foliosum

These are salad chicories, cultivated for their green tops. Among the subspecies, you’ll find three different types:

  1. Sugar Chicory (Sugarloaf)
  2. Belgian Endive (Or Witloof)
  3. Radicchio Chicory (Red Chicory)

There are several different cultivars under these three types, including Palla Rossa 3, Indigo, Grumolo Bionda, Rosso di Verona, and more.

C. Intybus L. Var. Silvestre

Also known as the wild red variety, C. intybus L. var. Silvestre is more prevalent in New Zealand and has been bred primarily for use in the forage industry. It includes several other varieties under the classification:

  1. Oasis
  2. Chico
  3. Choice
  4. Puna II
  5. Forager
  6. Forage Feast
  7. Puna (Grasslands Puna)

C.intybus L. var. sativum

The third subspecies is commonly known as root chicory and is popularly cultivated as a coffee substitute. Roasted and ground roots are used as a coffee substitute or combined with coffee for a mixed flavor, and the roots can also be consumed like carrots or parsnips.

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Origins Of This Understated Weed

The chicory plant is native to Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. It was cultivated and used by the ancient Egyptians over 5000 years ago. Other than for culinary purposes, it was also a popular medicine of the time. The word chicory is derived from the Egyptian word ‘Ctchorium.’ Although it was initially a wild plant, over time, as humans found more uses for the weed, cultivated forms were developed.

Ancient Greeks and Romans also used chicory as a vegetable. Historic writings of Horace, Pliny, Virgil, Galenus, and Ovid include references to the herb. But, it wasn’t until the 17th century that the species was given the status of a cultivated plant.

Later in the 19th century, after the “Continental Blockade” was initiated by Napoleon, which resulted in a shortage of coffee in France, chicory gained new attention. The French mixed roasted and ground chicory roots into coffee to make up for the deficiency. Even after the trade blockade was lifted, they continued using chicory coffee as a healthy alternative.

The French introduced the coffee substitute to New Orleans and the rest of the United States. When blockades disturbed the regular coffee deliveries during the American Civil War, people again sought to chicory to substitute the essential drink. Even after the war, many continued its use, especially in Louisiana and New Orleans.

What Does The Chicory Plant Look Like?

Chicory is a herbaceous perennial that you can quickly identify on roadsides with its upright growth and vivid, sky-blue flowers. Above the fleshy taproot, chicory grows a hairy, branching stem, extending over 3 to 4 feet (about 0,90 to 1,22 meters) tall. Around mid-summer, it blooms with brilliant blue flowers with a showy display that won’t fail to grab an audience.

Root

The chicory plant grows a long taproot, like parsnips and carrots. The fleshy root can be served baked or roasted, but its most popular use is as a coffee additive or substitute. In France, Ricore is a product made from 40% coffee and 60% chicory.

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Leaves

The leaves are alternately arranged on branching, hairy stems. The toothed, lobed leaves are slightly larger near the base and look like dandelion leaves. Towards the upper end of the plant, they grow smaller, unlobed, and almost toothless. They’re harvested and used raw in salads or can be cooked as a leaf vegetable.

Flowers

The flowers usually have a beautiful blue color and appear around mid summers to fall. Certain varieties also give white or pink flowers. They’re 1 to 1,6 inches (about 2 to 4 cm) wide, looking a lot like dandelions, which is why they’re also sometimes called blue dandelions. Flower heads open up with the sun in the morning and close by noon.

In What Conditions Does Chicory Grow Best In?

Given its weedy growth, chicory is relatively easy to grow in your garden. It’s a hardy perennial that will adapt quickly to most growing conditions. But, here are some extra tips you’ll probably find helpful.

In What Temperature Does Chicory Grow Best?

Chicory seeds will germinate in a wide range of temperatures ranging from 40 to 85°F (about 4 to 30°C). But, a soil temperature of 70°F (roughly 21°C) is ideal for seed sprouting. It’s planted in early spring as soon as the soil is workable, 2 to 3 weeks before the last spring frost.

Midsummers is also an excellent time to plant the seeds if the temperatures are below 85°F (about 30°C). Most varieties thrive when temperatures are between 45 to 75°F (approximately 7 to 24°C).

Soil And Sun

Though it tolerates partial shade, it’s best to grow chicory at a site with full sun exposure. The garden bed should drain well and be rich in organic matter. Add plenty of well-rotted compost before planting the seeds and ensure the soil’s pH is between 5.5 and 7.0 for the plants to thrive.

Water And Fertilizer

Chicory likes its soil evenly moist but not wet. Overwatering will promote diseases. Once you’ve planted the seeds in well-amended soil, you can side-dress the plants with some aged compost at midseason to replenish the soil’s nutrient supply.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Chicory?

Chicory offers many health benefits. The roots, seeds, and dried leaves are also used to prepare medicines. The roots are a healthy, caffeine-free alternative to coffee, while the leaves are a nutritious leafy vegetable.

But, let’s see if it’s safe for everyone and if there are any conditions in which its use should be avoided or checked.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

While it’s safe to consume chicory in food amounts if you’re pregnant or nursing, it isn’t clear if the herb is safe to eat in medicinal amounts during these conditions. Large amounts of chicory during pregnancy may cause miscarriage.

Children

You can offer chicory leaves and roots in low to moderate amounts to children. But cook it well and don’t start at a very early age since it may be harder to chew.

People With Allergies

If you are allergic to ragweed or birch pollen you should avoid consuming chicory since you might be allergic to this plant as well.

People With Diabetes

Chicory can lower blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes and are consuming chicory in addition to other blood sugar-regulating medications, you will need to keep a close watch over your blood sugar levels.

Pets

Chicory, complete with all its parts, isn’t toxic to pets. You can grow it safely in your garden, even if you have a cat, dog, or other pets.

Featured image credit – Le Do/Shutterstock.com

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