A member of the daisy (Asteraceae) family chicory is also commonly known as coffeeweed, succor, and blue-sailors. Its attractive sky-blue flowers open and close at the same time every day, a characteristic noted by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, who included chicory in the floral clock he planted at the Swedish city, Uppsala. Since then the plant is often grown in floral clocks around the world but the opening times of its flowers vary because they relate to latitude. However, regardless of where they’re grown they always close five hours after they open and the leaves always align with the north. Another interesting characteristic of the plant’s flowers is their ability to change from their normal blue colour to bright red when they come in contact with the acid of ants. Although chicory is used for both food and medicine it’s probably most commonly known these days as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee.
Folklore and Magical Uses
I’m always fascinated with the folk tales that give the reason for a plant’s characteristics and the one explaining the colour of chicory’s flowers is poignant. Apparently the lovely clear blue chicory flowers are the transformed eyes of a young lass who wept for her lover’s ship that never returned. Perhaps this folklore is the basis for chicory’s magical use of carrying it to help one forget a lover. The herb is also used in combination with cinquefoil and clove to make a vision incense.
Although chicory was used in ancient times by the Romans who prescribed it for liver conditions it wasn’t until centuries later that it was recommended by herbalists as a diuretic, tonic, and laxative. They also used it to treat inflammations and swellings by making a poultice from the bruised leaves. According to the philosophy of the Doctrine of Signatures chicory’s milky sap helped to increase nursing mother’s milk. Today some herbalists use the herb to treat indigestion, gallstones, anorexia, constipation, hepatitis, fluid retention, rheumatism, and gout. Chicory is valuable as a tonic because it contains Vitamins A, B, C, K, and P.
It has many similarities to dandelion but although it is valued as a medicinal herb in Europe it doesn’t have the same importance as dandelion in traditional British herbalism.
Medicinal Adult Dosage
Suggested dose of the juiced fresh root: 10 – 15 ml three times daily
Decoction: 8 – 12 g of the root three times daily
Generally used more as food than medicine these days, the young leaves of cultivated and wild chicory are gathered in spring and used in salads while the older leaves can be cooked as a vegetable but they do have a bitter taste. Just as with dandelion root the chicory root can be washed, sliced, gently dried then roasted and ground to make a pleasant substitute for coffee. It has a pleasant bitter taste and contains no caffeine so it can be drunk on its own or blended with coffee to reduce its stimulating effect. The buds can be pickled and the chicons can be fried gently in butter as vegetable dish. Chicons are blanched leaf heads produced by digging up the chicory roots, replanting them in a dark cellar, and letting them grow until the small pale heads are several centimeters high.
Herb Description, and Habitat
Chicory is a perennial with blue flowers borne at the bases of the small leaves on a rough stiff stem that grows from a rosette of leaves on the ground. The plant usually grows to a height of 90 cm but can grow up to 150 cm. It has a tough and long taproot that allows it to grow and survive in areas that are harsh to other plants. Native to Europe, North Africa, and West Asia chicory is naturalized in different parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand where it grows in fields, cultivated and waste land, and along roadsides.
Cultivation and Harvesting
The herb is grown from seed, self sows and germinates easily. Transplant about 30 cm apart when the plants are young and cut flowering stems back in autumn. It can also be grown by digging up the clumps in autumn, dividing the roots with a crown, and replanting them. It is frost and drought resistant. The roots are used for herbal medicine and are dug during autumn in the second year of growth. It’s a fairly inconspicuous plant until the flowers begin to appear in summer.