Chicory: The Lady Waiting by the Road
Swaying with lonely beauty along many roadsides and fencerows of America, one would be surprised to learn that this quiet weed would be the source of such debate, ire, legend, and historical use among the people of the world. This plant is a great friend and foe to mankind. An esteemed vegetable, chicory has been cultivated as a foodstuff by the ancient Egyptians, and touted by Pliny the Elder as being a powerful medicine. Chicory has also been a major plant-source of contention in the coffee industry throughout the 19 th century… even inspiring heated debates and talk of outright prohibition in the British Parliament.
Yes, this unassuming herb is a plant of high drama and healing. Countless legends and stories associate with this wayside plant. Now, it is my pleasure to draw back the curtains and welcome you to the world of C. intybus.
Family — Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)
Aliases — Succory, endive, chondrilla, gum succory, dorothea, wegewarten (Gr.), spouse of the sun, Chicorie (Gr.), Cicoria (It.), Achicoria (Sp.), Zikorifa (Rus.), Suikerey (Du.), witloof.
Binomial Etymology — Cichorium denotes chicory ; intybus is rooted in the Egyptian word “tybi” which means January . The word chicory itself is derived from the Egyptian word, Chicouryeh, which was their word for the plant .
Binomial Pronunciation — see-KORE- ee-um IN-tye- buss
USDA Classification — Introduced and noxious
C. intybus can be anywhere from 1 to 6 feet tall with spreading branches and a deep taproot; the plant emerges from a basal rosette and the 1–10- inch-long leaves have a rough texture. The leave shape can be described as oblanceolate (appearing as a sword but fatter). The leaves become smaller as they occur up the plant, often appearing puny and attaching direct to the branch without a stem. It’s in the axils of these upper/smaller leaves you will find the flowers which can present singly or up to about three at a time. The flowers are most often blue (although there have been reports of white and purple-flowered varieties occurring) . These flowers can be as large as 1.5 inches in diameter with many petals (think sun rays) .
This plant can be found along fencerows, roadsides, and any undisturbed areas/vacant lots.
The roots are roasted as a coffee additive or substitute much like the dandelion. There is a myriad of investigative text in the 19 th century considering the addition of chicory as a commercial “adulterant,” however, some enjoy the bitter notes that chicory lends to coffee. The pleasantly bitter leaves are used in salads. The seeds are reportedly harvested to grow sprouts . It is said that the flowers can be pickled, and the roots can be eaten as a root vegetable provided you give them a few changes of water to reduce bitterness .
Michael Moore (the herbalist) mentioned that it is best to collect the roots for eating or coffee making when the plant is young as they become increasingly bitter with age .
The Cherokee people used chicory root infusion as a tonic to calm nerves; the Iroquois used a decoction of the roots to treat fever blisters . Much like the dandelion, chicory root is regarded as a safe diuretic even when used in large quantities for the use of dissolving kidney stones etc . The root of wild chicory was used extensively in the 17 th century for “opening obstructions” by steeping the root in wine; the juice of the root and the leaves were also dried and powdered to counteract the effects of snakebites, and tuberculosis (referred to as “the King’s Evil”) . Pliny the Elder made mention of the bitter leaves helping to aid in digestion .
The plant is said to be a mild sedative , this is a property that is mentioned in Charles W. Eliot’s classic, Don Quixote (see below).
Chicory (particularly the inulin produced in the root) has shown the increase serum calcium levels, and red blood cell volume in those suffering from type two diabetes . Chicory was shown to reduce severity of parasitic nematode infection in cattle .
Chicory tinctures and juice were touted as curing those with an “evil disposition”(brought on by sickness or otherwise) and passions or uncontrolled “swoonings of the heart”.
History & Folklore
Look, people are crazy about coffee. Because of this mania, being a coffee additive, chicory came extremely close to being outlawed or levied with a duty so large as to make it uneconomical for food use by the British in the 19th century . Am I the only person to find this hysterical? Picture a contentious years long debate in the British House over whether chicory improved — or proved to be a “fraudulent adulterant” of — the flavor of coffee; those must have been relatively peaceful times.
In the end, chicory was levied with a moderate duty but was still used as a coffee additive because so many found it to improve the flavor of coffee in the end . I myself agree. I encourage you, readers, to at least try the fraudulently adulterated French Market DarkRoast version found in most stores with a lemon madeleine on a rainy day. At least a few of those raindrops may be the tears of past Members of the British Parliament.
During the rule of the Roman Empire, chicory was a prized salad green and health food that was highly esteemed for its medicinal activities. According to Roman legend, chicory was originally a beautiful woman that the Sun fell in love with. The Sun asked this lady to marry him, but she refused his advances. Feeling slighted, the Sun took its revenge by turning the lady into the chicory plant, and she was thereafter condemned to watch him as he rose and set until the end of time . Similarly, according to Germanic legend, chicory was once a beautiful woman who pined by the road for her soldiering lover to return home. She pleaded with God that — if he should not return — that he may turn her into a flower by the wayside, and so God obliged. Still, in another Germanic story, she died waiting for her lover by the side of the road, and from her waiting body sprouted the chicory flower (called wegewarten), or the “watcher of the roads”.
Certainly, her beauty can still be admired to this day as flowers by the wayside watching the roads of the world.
According to old Greek Alexandrian translations of the bible, chicory was among the bitter herbs to be eaten with lamb at the feast of Passover .
“But Sancho spent not his time so vainly; for, having his stomach well stuffed, and that not with succory water, he carried smoothly away the whole night in one sleep…”
— Charles W. Eliot (Don Quixote)
Chicory is shown to have high levels of bioaccessible antioxidants . The leaves have been shown to be high in levels of magnesium and zinc 
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