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Reflections in Nature: Chicory plant has history being a coffee substitute

PHOTO PROVIDED Each flower extending from the center is either notched or jagged on the end. In Bradford County the flowers open approximately between 7 and 8 a.m. (depending on the weather) and begin to close near noon.

While on our morning walk we noticed many chicory plants in bloom. The chicory plant is probably best known to the older generation. During World War II, coffee became scarce and chicory was used as a substitute or an additive to stretch a pot of coffee. The roots of the plant were dug, thoroughly cleaned and roasted until they split open. The dark brown centers were ground and stored in a cool, dry place until used.

The genus name of chicory is “Cichorium” and comes from the Egyptian word “hendibeh” for chicory. The species name is “intybus,” which is also from Latin, meaning endive. The leaves of the chicory plant were often prepared and eaten just as endive. Chicory is also known as blue sailors, bunk and wild succory, which comes from the Latin word “succurrere,” meaning to run under and referring to the depth that chicory roots grow.

The Egyptians and Greeks drank chicory coffee, which was known as “the liver’s friend” due to the plant supposedly being good for the liver and gall bladder. In Germany, the chicory plant is known as “watcher of the road” and comes from a legend told about a beautiful young girl that watched every day for the return of her lover and finally died of a broken heart along the road. It has been said that the blue chicory flowers grow in the place where she died.

Chicory is a native of Europe, where it was cultivated for cattle food and also used for many medicinal purposes. Chicory is an old plant that has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years for its medicinal and culinary properties. During the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson raised chicory from seeds he imported from Italy. Jefferson praised the plant’s value as cattle feed and called chicory the greatest acquisition a farmer can have. However it wasn’t until the 19th century when European settlers came to the United States that chicory came to settle permanently on our shores. Today, the blue square tipped flowers are such a common sight along our country roads that we consider the plant a weed.

Chicory is not a plant that invades flower gardens. The plant likes a dry, sunny location. Linnaeus wrote that the brilliant blue flowers, which average one and a half to two inches across, bloom for only a few hours each day. Each flower extending from the center is either notched or jagged on the end. In Bradford County, the flowers open approximately between 7 and 8 a.m. (depending on the weather) and begin to close near noon.

Although all parts of the chicory plant can be used for medicine or cooking, the long taproots are the best part. These roots should be dug in early summer before becoming too woody. The young leaves should be gathered when first appearing. The leaves can be used as a poultice to ease swelling, inflammation, pimples and sores. Some say the crushed leaves work best if a small amount of vinegar is added.

All flowers do not produce the same amount of nectar during the day. However certain insects are aware of when a flower produces the most nectar. Of course, a chicory flower has the best nectar during the mid-morning hours.

Chicory is a rather ragged looking weed that grows to a height of approximately four feet. The basal leaves are dark green, deeply toothed and tapered toward the ends. The upper leaves are much smaller than the lower leaves. The stems exude a milky sap when broken.

Although I have never tried this, I read in one book that the chicory flower can be used as a very rough pH indicator, a type of natural litmus paper. To do this, one must stir up an ant hill and hold the blue flower over the hill. The ants will shoot out formic acid as a defense mechanism, which turns the flower pink. However the book didn’t say how to keep the biting ants off of the person’s body.

Chicory coffee is believed to have first been used during a coffee shortage in France during the 1800s. Chicory remains popular around the world, and chicory coffee can still be found on store shelves.

Years ago, I tried to make my own chicory coffee. After I dug, washed and dried the roots, my next step was to grind them. I placed the roots in our blender and immediately heard screams from Mary Alice. The coffee was a disaster, and I needed to purchase a new blender.

I learned that a heavy duty blender should have been used.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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