Chicory

 

(This 750th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 14, 2005.)

 

Chicory is the common blue wildflower of summer. It will only give up pride of place when the asters of fall begin to bloom.

 

I consider chicory very attractive, even though it has only those boutonniere blossoms going for it. The poet Margaret Deland captured their quality when she wrote of them as "dear blue eyes."

 

Close up I admit that the rest of the plant is quite ugly. The only dandelion-like leaves form a basal rosette and even those have mostly wilted by this time of year. Without leaves the stems are then, as one author described them, "naked and gawky." The plant is, like dandelions and coltsfoot, another alien and like them it grows in uninviting places, along roadsides and in abandoned fields.

 

But I still urge you to like this plant. You don't have to look at it close up; instead simply enjoy those flowers whose soft hue is like that of the bluejay.

 

Two legends are associated with chicory. In one the plant was once a beautiful maiden who refused the advances of the sun. Old Sol, in retaliation, turned her into this flower, forcing her to stare at him and making her fade each day before his power.

 

I didn't appreciate the last part of that story until I set out one afternoon to take the accompanying photograph. The blossoms had disappeared and I had to return the next morning to find them again on display. In fact, Linnaeus considered this plant one of his timekeepers, opening its flowers at 5:30 a.m. and closing them in mid-morning. Translating those times from the latitude of Sweden to western New York, here it blossoms from about 7:30 a.m. to noon.

 

The other legend relates to one of chicory's alternate names, blue sailors. In this story the beautiful maiden fell in love with a sailor who left her for the sea. She waited patiently for his return until finally, knowing that her lover had drowned, the gods took pity on her and turned her into this plant still wearing her sailor-blue blossoms.

 

Today we think of chicory as a weed but it was not always so. Thomas Jefferson had specimens sent to him from Italy and he recommended the plant as cattle fodder to his friend, George Washington. Indeed, it is grown as a hay crop in Europe where some claim that it serves better than alfalfa. Sheep especially love to eat it.

 

And so do some of us. The very young leaves serve well in salads just as do those of chicory's close relation endive. Because the chicory leaves soon turn bitter, herbalists keep the plants in the dark. The plants then produce white leaves, called "witloof" by Belgian growers, which they export as a salad specialty. Young leaves and roots are also boiled and eaten like spinach and carrots. And once the plant was established here, Native Americans soon chewed the young roots like gum.

 

But we older folks know chicory better as a coffee-substitute, additive or flavoring. During both World Wars when coffee was unavailable, dried chicory root was often substituted. And commercial coffee-makers sometimes adulterate (or they might claim enhance) their various brews with chicory, especially when the world coffee price rises. Some people even prefer the stronger and even more bitter taste of chicory.

 

Unlike coffee, chicory is caffein-free and is considered by some to undo the stimulating effects of coffee. Jack Sanders points out that a new word "chicoraceous" was coined to refer to coffee tasting too much of chicory.

 

Then, of course, there is the litany of medicinal uses of this plant. I will cite only one list. In the 17th century Italian physician Pierandrea Mattioli prepared a confection by chopping chicory flowers, adding sugar, pounding the mix with a mortar and letting the result liquefy in the sun. He wrote that his candy "strengthens the heart; opens, cleans and strengthens the liver; banishes heartburn; stops fevers and incipient dropsy; and cools all internal organs. In brief," he concluded, "this sugar serves all infirmities."-- Gerry Rising