Posted by Alexis
Common English name: chicory
Native to Eurasia; invasive in North America
Chicory, and its use to either stretch coffee or substitute it entirely, has a history that spans the globe. While people usually started making chicory coffee during times of scarcity or blockades, in some places (notably India and New Orleans, LA) making chicory coffee has become a tradition and the flavor is often preferred. To prepare the roots, wash them and cut them in small even pieces. Cut them to a size that would fit easily in a coffee grinder. Roast the root pieces in a shallow pan in a 350 degree F oven until they are dark brown and brittle. Once cool, they can be ground and used like coffee.
Advertisements and packaging for chicory coffee from around the world. Composite image compiled by Alexis Smith.
The mature, flowering plants are easily recognized in Chicago. They can grow around 4 feet tall and have showy blue flowers that are about an inch and a half in diameter. There are some blue-flowering wild lettuces that look very similar superficially, such as Lactuca floridana. However, those species are more likely to be found in moist thickets and woods, while chicory thrives in disturbed soils (Peterson 1977).
Chicory leaves are also edible, although some people may find their flavor bitter. When the plant is young and only basal leaves are present, it can be difficult to tell them apart from the leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) or wild lettuces (e.g. Lactuca canadensis, L. serriola, both of which are found in disturbed soils). If you are only trying to forage some greens to cook with dinner, telling them apart is not so important. They are all pretty tasty sautéed in olive oil with some fresh garlic, salt, and pepper. More importantly, I have never heard of any poisonous look-alikes and I have searched very hard for them! A general rule with wild greens is that young, tender leaves are tastier and more digestible than older, tougher leaves.
Chicory harvested at the Lawndale Triangle Garden. Photos by Alexis Smith.
I have found no information about North American insects that use chicory as a larval host plant. This makes sense because the genus is comprised of 6 species that are all native to Eurasia (Street et al. 2013). However, chicory could still benefit urban North American pollinators. Chicory has a long flowering season (Peterson 1977) which could make it a reliable nectar resource for bees and butterflies.
Chicory has been used medicinally throughout much of the world. Its traditional uses are all so interesting that I could not decide how to summarize them. I recommend reading Street at al. (2013) if you also find that interesting.
Peterson LA. 1977. Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America. Peterson Field Guide Series, no 23. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY.
Street RA, Sidana J, and Prinsloo G. 2013. Cichorium intybus: traditional uses, phytochemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/579319