Chicory grows wild throughout much of the world. Its distinctive blue daisylike flowers are a familiar sight in cleared or abandoned areas and fields, as well as along roadsides, where it often spreads aggressively.
Chicory has been used medicinally since ancient times. It is mentioned as a healing herb in the 1st-century writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides, and the ancient Romans used the plant as both a medicine and a food. Thomas Jefferson, who held chicory in high regard, cultivated the herb as a groundcover, cattle fodder, and “tolerable salad” green. In a 1795 letter to George Washington, Jefferson described chicory as “one of the greatest acquisitions a farmer can have.”
Common Names: Chicory, Succor
Description: Deep-rooted perennial with rigid stems, up to 6 feet tall; hairy leaves with ragged edges; sky blue dandelionlike blooms, up to 1½ inches across
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: Midsummer to fall
Parts Used: Leaves and roots
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized throughout North America; found along roadsides and in fields
Italian chicory (also known as radicchio) produces heads of red, green, or variegated leaves. Radicchio imparts a pleasantly bitter, spicy flavor to salads and is complemented by sweet fruit, such as oranges and figs. Radicchio can also be brushed with olive oil and grilled, cooked with risotto, or added to pasta sauces and fillings. Chicory roots can be dried, roasted, ground, and then blended with coffee for a flavorful, reduced-caffeine beverage.
Chicory root is a rich source of inulin, which may encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms in your intestines. In folk medicine, chicory root is believed to have mild diuretic and laxative effects, similar to dandelion. Ancient Egyptians used the root to treat rapid heartbeat, and they mixed the plant’s juice with wine to treat liver and bladder conditions. Native Americans included the roots in nerve formulas and applied a root poultice to fever sores.
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the aboveground parts of this plant to promote digestion, to increase appetite, and as a diuretic. The crushed leaves can be applied topically to treat skin lacerations, swelling, and inflammation.
How to grow it
Chicory grows best in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. For summer greens, sow seeds in late spring; for fall greens, sow seeds in midsummer. Chicory is very cold hardy, and in all but the coldest regions, it is possible to extend the harvest season into winter with the use of a floating row cover, cloche, or cold frame.
If you plan to harvest the roots, do not allow the plant to go to seed. Harvest roots of 2- or 3-year-old plants in fall.