Eating Weeds: Chicory

Over the course of human history, plant species once esteemed or considered useful have been recategorized into something less desirable. For one reason or another, plants fall out of favor or wear out their welcome, and, in come cases, are found to be downright obnoxious, ultimately losing their place in our yards and gardens. The particularly troublesome ones are branded as weeds, and put on our “do not plant” lists. These plants are not only unfavored, they’re despised. But being distinguished as a weed doesn’t necessary negate a plant’s usefulness. It’s likely that the plant still has some redeeming characteristics. We’ve just chosen instead to pay more attention its less redeeming ones.

Chicory is a good example of a plant like this. At one point in time, Cichorium intybus had a more prominent place in our gardens, right alongside dandelions in fact. European colonizers first introduced chicory to North America in the late 1700’s. Its leaves were harvested for use as a salad green and its roots were used to make a coffee additive or substitute. Before that, cultivation of chicory for these and other purposes had been going on across Europe for thousands of years, and it still goes on today to a certain extent. Along with other chicory varieties, a red-leafed form known as radicchio and a close cousin known as endive (Chicorium endivia) are grown as specialty crops, occassionally finding their way into our fanciest of salads.

Radicchio di Chioggia (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is a cultivated variety of chicory. (via wikimedia commons)

Chicory’s tough, adaptable nature and proclivity to escape cultivation have helped it become widespread, making itself at home in natural areas as well as urban and rural settings. Its perennial life history helps make it a fixture in the landscape. It sends down a long, sturdy taproot and settles in for the long haul. It tolerates dry, compacted soils with poor fertility and doesn’t shy away from roadside soils frequently scoured with salts. It’s as though it was designed to be a city weed.

Unlike many other perennial weeds, chicory doesn’t spread vegetatively. It starts its life as a seed, blown in from a nearby plant. After sprouting, it forms a dandelion-esque rosette of leaves during its first year. Wiry, branched stems rise up from the rosette in following years, reaching heights of anywhere from about a foot to 5 or 6 feet. When broken, leaves, stems, and roots ooze a milky sap. Abundant flowers form along the gangly stems. Like other plants in the aster family, each flower head is composed of multiple flowers. Chicory flower heads are all ray flowers, lacking the disc flowers found in the center of other plants in this family. The petals are a brilliant blue – sometimes pink or white. Individual flowers last less than a day and are largely pollinated by bees. The fruits lack the large pappus found on dandelions and other close relatives, but the seeds are still dispersed readily with the help of wind, animals, and human activity.

chicory (Cichorium intybus) via wikimedia commons

The most commonly consumed portions of chicory are its leaves and roots. Its flowers and flower buds are also edible. Young leaves and blanched leaves are favored because they are the least bitter. Excluding the leaves from light by burying or covering them up keeps them pale and reduces their bitter flavor. This is standard practice in the commercial production of certain chicory varieties. The taproots of chicory are dried, roasted, and ground for use as a coffee substitute. They are also harvested commercially for use as a natural sweetener due to their high concentration of inulin.

my puny chicory root

I harvested a single puny chicory root in order to make tea. On my bike ride to work there is a small, sad patch of chicory growing in the shade of large trees along the bike path. I was only able to pull one plant up by the roots. The others snapped off at the base. So, I took my tiny root, dried and roasted it in the oven, and ground it up in a coffee grinder. I followed instructions for roasting found on this website, but there are many other sources out there. I had just enough to make one small cup of tea, which reminded me of dandelion root teas I have had. Sierra found it to be very bitter, and I agreed but still enjoyed it. I figure that wild plants, especially those growing in stressful conditions like mine was, are likely to be more bitter and strong tasting compared to coddled, cultivated ones found in a garden.

roasted chicory root

roasted and ground chicory root

When I find a larger patch of feral chicory, I hope to try one of several recipes included in Luigi Ballerini’s book, A Feast of Weeds, as well as other recipes out there. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Are you curious to know how chicory became such a successful weed in North America? Check out this report in Ecology and Evolution to learn about the genetic explanation behind chicory’s success.

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Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

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