See what’s happening on the grounds of the Ames Free Library or nearby areas with “A Glimpse of Nature.” Offered by Lorraine Rubinacci, the library's resident naturalist, this weekly photo blog is a gentle reminder to enjoy the wonders that surround us.
A Glimpse of Nature - "Chicory"
Roses are red and violets are blue . . . at least according to the old song (and older poems). In fact, most of the violets that I’ve seen are not blue. Common violets are purple, round-leaved violets are yellow, sweet white violets are . . . . Perhaps the discrepancy involves my conception of “blue.” I am thinking of cornflower blue.
Only a few plants in Southeastern Massachusetts display this “true blue.” One is the bigleaf hydrangea, a beloved garden plant in coastal areas, originally from Japan. Some cultivated morning glories share this hue, but most blue-flowered plants growing “wild” in Massachusetts are rare or small or not well known. And then, there is chicory.
I am hardly alone in admiring the color. An Audubon article about chicory is subtitled “Nature’s Finest Blue.” According to the Chicago Botanic Garden, “. . . less than ten percent of the plant kingdom features blue flowers . . . .” Perhaps, this explains their popularity among gardeners. I once had a small blue garden and, a few years back, I was fortunate to tour the newly-restored Blue Garden in Newport.
I haven’t noticed chicory on the property of the Ames Free Library, but that may be because I do my scouting after 5 p.m., when my indoor work is completed. This species is most noticeable in bloom, and it blooms in the morning. By the time I’m walking the grounds, the blossoms would have closed. All the same, it is a common plant in our area. There is a small cluster on Main Street near Langwater Pond and a few nice patches on Manley Street towards Route 106 in West Bridgewater. I am sure that you have seen it as well, for it grows in very conspicuous places: along the edges of sidewalks, roadsides, fields, and other waste places where only “weeds” grow.
It needs sun and good drainage. Because this plant can tolerate tough conditions like exposure to road salt and mowing, it survives where other species fail. Like many introduced species, this European native capitalizes on sites that have been disrupted by humans. In some places, such as Colorado, it has become invasive. Here’s a specimen that grew near my house. The image on the right shows the “soil” that supported it: tightly-packed gravel with some dust mixed in.
When not in bloom, the plant is very plain, with wiry stems and a basal rosette of dandelion-like leaves. Notice its substantial tap root(s). This serves the plant well during droughts.
In cultivation, under less challenging conditions, the roots are larger and less gnarly. Yes, this roadside weed is grown as a crop, mostly in Europe. Indeed, quite a lot of it is grown: world production in 2018 was close to 600,000 tonnes.
Roasted and ground, chicory roots are blended with coffee or consumed as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. In the U.S. the beverage is especially popular in New Orleans. Unable to travel there for a sample, I made do with a canister of Cafe Du Monde, a coffee/chicory blend that has been served in the city’s French Market “since the early 1860’s.” I found this to be a smooth, pleasant drink, less acidic than straight coffee and similar in texture to cocoa.
Chicory root may offer some health benefits as well. It contains a fiber called inulin that is thought to improve gut health and to help regulate blood sugar levels.
Next, I brewed straight chicory root . . . overnight, in a mason jar of water, just as I would coffee. My ratio of root-to-water was much higher than recommended, and this resulted in a concentrate that required dilution. Tomorrow’s experiment will be iced chicory.
Some varieties of chicory, such as radicchio and Belgian endive, are grown for their leaves. These moderately bitter vegetables can be cooked but are often eaten raw in salad. Wild chicory leaves are more pungent. Cooking them in boiling water removes some of the bitterness, but it is best to start with young, spring leaves. As I anticipated, my recent harvest yielded coarse, very bitter leaves that did not improve with cooking. I will try again in spring, though I much prefer peppery greens like mustard and arugula.
Until then, I will tinker with chicory beverages and appreciate the charm and resilience of roadside weeds.
At the Library
| Weeds of the Northeast
by Richard Uva, et al.
by Samuel Thayer
by Cynthia Jenson-Elliott