I enjoy reading and writing about weeds, especially when I can learn new information about the weeds in my own garden.
Previous columns about stinging nettle and bedstraw mentioned that these plants can cause allergic reactions in some people. I was surprised to learn recently that one of my favorite weeds - or wildflowers, as I prefer - also can cause allergic reactions. That plant is chicory, sometimes known as blue dandelion and wild endive, but botanically its name is Cichorium intybus.
If you've noticed the blue flowers along the roadsides in your travels, you've likely seen chicory. I've mentioned before that my favorite combination while driving is blue chicory flowers blooming alongside white Queen Anne's Lace. If you haven't noticed them before, now is the time to pay attention.
You have to catch them early since chicory blooms only for a few hours each day. The man behind the naming of, well ... everything, Carl Von Linne, better known as Linnaeus, is said to have set his clock by the opening and closing of chicory flowers on his property. I've not timed them in the field beside my house, but I would estimate they begin to open with the sunrise and begin to close around noon when the sun is overhead.
Growing wildly across the county, chicory prefers dry, gravely soil, which is why it is so at home along the roadside. Considered a herb for its many culinary and medicinal uses, wild chicory isn't as appealing and commercially cultivated varieties. The root of the wild plant is brown and thin and difficult to harvest. If you are curious enough to want to plant your own, seeds and plants can be ordered from Internet sources.
The most common use of chicory root is as an additive to coffee. In some cases, it was even used as a substitute for coffee when the real thing wasn't available, but more often it is used to cut the acid and bitter taste of the beverage.
I don't drink coffee, so I can't offer an opinion for or against the use of chicory, but even if I did, the process of preparing it from my garden is more than I am willing to undertake. In spring, the long taproot must be dug from the soil and scrubbed. After cleaning, the root is roasted in a low oven set at less than 200 degrees, similar to drying any other herb quickly in the oven.
Once the root is brittle, dark and thoroughly dried, it can be broken into pieces and stored in an air tight container. Don't ask me the proportions of chicory root to coffee, you'll have to figure that one out for yourself.
Medicinally, chicory was used as a spring tonic to cleanse the liver and ease the symptoms of gallstones, intestinal distress and even constipation. Pregnant women should not use chicory and since herbal remedies have not been property studied, I wouldn't recommend it for nursing mothers either. A paste made from the leaves and applied on the skin is said to relieve swelling and inflammation.
All parts of the plant are edible, including using fresh leaves in salads, dried as a seasoning and the stalks, which can be eaten like celery. Belgium endive, raddichio and the lacy frisee, found in grocery stores, are members of the Cichorium genus, but are different species than our wild chicory.
They are all members of the daisy family of plants, Asteraceae. You also may see this plant family listed as Compositae; both names are correct and are often used separately or together.
This means chicory also is related to chrysanthemums, daisies, marigolds and many other plants that have the sunray-shaped flowers. Ragweed, a distant cousin, is a member of this family as well, so persons allergic to ragweed could also have a sensitivity to chicory.
Excuse the pun, but allergies are nothing to sneeze at. Some reactions could be as simple as a runny nose, but other reactions can be more dangerous. Check with your doctor before self medicating with herbs.
Personally, I prefer to enjoy chicory just as it is, growing alongside the road, in vacant lots and on the edges of fields where it is pleasant to look at and adds color to an otherwise dusty trail.