Are you planning for the apocalypse? If you've stocked bullets, beans, and bandages, that's a good start. But when the coffee runs out, all h*ll is gonna break loose. That's why we're so precious about our chicory seed stash.
In its native Europe, chicory roots are dried, roasted, and ground up to serve as a healthy substitute for coffee beans. Chicory roots lack caffeine, but at least you'll have the same rich flavor as your morning cuppa Joe. As for waking you up, you'll just have to rely on terror to keep you on your toes when things go sideways.
Here in North America, growing chicory from seed is common as an ornamental for its charming blue flowers. Graziers plant chicory in their pastures to help draw nutrients from deep within the soil and keep their livestock fat and happy, and herbalists use chicory for a number of medicinal purposes.
A Family Resemblance
Cichorium intybus is a member of the Asteraceae family, with a flower shape and foliage resembling its dandelion cousin. The name "chicory" is often assigned to its close relatives, the "garden-variety" salad endives (Cichorium endiva) and while very young and tender chicory leaves are sometimes used in mixed greens, they shouldn't be confused with one another when you're ordering seeds or shopping at your local garden center. Be careful! We've found at least one popular seed retailer marketing C. intybus seeds while publishing images of C. endiva greens. The chicory we're talking about today has a tougher texture, with woody stems, so we wonder how many ticked-off chefs with dedicated kitchen gardens are looking for a new, reputable seed supplier right about now.
In case it helps you make certain you're getting the right stuff, here are some of C. intybus' many common names with which you can cross-reference food foraging and nursery guides:
- Italian dandelion
- Blue dandelion
- Wild bachelor's buttons
- Blue sailors
- Blue daisy
On occasion, chicory might be called "cornflower," but that name's reserved for Centaurea cyanus. Both have blooms that can be described as "cornflower blue," but the latter plant came by that moniker honestly, and we've got a blog post to tell you all about it.
Chicory in the Garden
Chicory's flower structure and foliage are very similar to that of the dandelion, though chicory sends up longer bloom stalks than its cousin. Like dandelion, chicory has a deep taproot, making use of minerals and nutrients inaccessible to many other plants and allowing it to thrive in low-water environments.
Chicory's overall airy structure belies its tough nature. It makes a fantastic aesthetic companion to baby's breath, or you can try it as a foreground plant for tall, foliage-dense hedges. Even though it's not a North American native plant, it has that "wildflower" look about it and lends itself well to sparse, desert-themed xeriscapes.
USDA Hardiness Zones: Biennial or perennial in zones 3 to 7.
Sunlight Preferences: Chicory needs full sun. Period.
Soil Requirements: Chicory can handle average to poor soils, but looks best in compost-amended flower beds. It thrives in neutral to alkaline soils, and in areas where it's naturalized, it's often found in chalky soil.
Moisture Requirements: Cichorium intybus is drought resistant, which is part of the reason why it makes a great livestock forage plant. When chicory is grown as an ornamental, it prefers evenly moist soil. Don't overwater!
Plant Height: Up to 5'.
Plant Width: 1.5'.
Flowers: Pale indigo blue flowers (rarely, white or pink) form in the radial pattern common to the Asteraceae family. The petals' outer edges appear ragged and uneven. Each flower is .75' to 1.5' across, flat, and only slightly cupped. Chicory flowers open at sunrise and close once again around noon...not unlike that drive-up coffee shack you threw rocks at last Thursday at 12:18 pm.
Chicory is self-fertile, meaning it has both male and female reproductive organs. The stamens match the rest of the flower in hue and extend outward roughly 1/4" the length of the surrounding petals...which are actually individual flowers called ray florets.
If you pick a chicory bloom and flip it over, you'll notice that it has a hearty "receptacle," the bulbous material that secures the individual florets and connects everything to the stem. From these receptacles, the calyx protects the budding flowers. Flip the flower over once again, and where the petals join, the blue fades to a pale center.
Bloom Period: Chicory blooms spring through early summer after which time it may lay low until early fall. Don't be surprised if it keeps up its floral display straight on through, especially in regions where the mercury doesn't spend too many consecutive days above 80°F.
Foliage: Chicory's basal leaves, which grow on stems at the plant's base, are long, narrow, hairy and spearlike, often with spaced, circular serrations along the edges. The hollow, grooved stems tend to be bare, but if leaves are present, they get smaller and smoother the farther up they grow. Leaf color is dark to medium green.
Growth Habit: Long, spindly, multi-branched and sparsely-leafed flower stalks grow upward from the plant's clumping base. The flowers grow along the plant stalks and branching stems, often in clusters.
Days to Maturity: Chicory is a fast-growing plant, maturing in as few as 30 days.
Pests & Diseases: Aside from abuse by grazing livestock (those four horsemen need to feed their ponies somehow, right?) and those jonesing for the taste of an Americano, chicory is relatively pest and disease resistant. Look out for snails and slugs around their basal leaves.
Maintenance: Deadhead spent blooms to prevent self-seeding. Chicory is considered an invasive weed in many areas, and while it's a pretty flower, you don't want your neighbors to hate you the way everyone does the guy who never gets rid of the dandelions in his front yard.
Harvesting: You can eat all parts of the chicory plant if Cichorium intybus is the last edible forage left after a thermonuclear war. Radiation aside, though, you'll find the flowers to have a very bitter taste, and you'll want to blanch or saute all but the youngest leaves. Dig out the roots, clean them up, and dry them in a warm oven before you roast them in a hot skillet. Read on to learn about their culinary and medicinal properties!
Chicory makes a great cut flower. Cut the stalks at the base and stick them in water as soon as possible, and then cut them again at an angle under warm running water before adding them to your arrangement. Even in an underground bunker, you've got to make home decorating a priority! (Didn't Martha Stewart Living have a Survivalist Issue?)
Growing Chicory from Seed
As with any deep-rooted plant, we recommend that you direct-sow your chicory seeds outside shortly after your last frost date. Chicory thrives in cool weather, and its seeds germinate best when the soil temperatures are around 60°F to 65°F.
If you're planting chicory in a container garden, be sure to use deep pots or raised beds to accommodate their large taproots.
Seed Treatment: None required.
Seed Depth: Sow on the surface of cultivated, smooth soil. Chicory seeds require sunlight to germinate, so don't cover them with more than 1/16" soil. Keep the planting area moist with low-pressure irrigation, such as drip misters or the finest setting on your garden hose sprayer.
Seed Spacing: Thin or plant every 12 to 18 inches.
Days to Germination: 7 to 21.
Chicory in the Kitchen and the Medicine Cabinet
Chicory's played a role in our health and healing least as far back as recorded time. The young leaves, when blanched or eaten raw, are favorable to those harvested from wild dandelions. Belgians and the French developed strains specifically for plumper, more flavorful roots which, when boiled, can be eaten like parsnips. Wild chicory roots tend to be woody, spindly, and bitter, though they're still useful as a coffee substitute (or with which to "cut" your coffee supply).
Since the 1970s, C. intybus roots —which contain up to 40% inulin—have been cultivated on a commercial scale as a diabetic-safe sweetening additive. Before the age of polyester pants and Farrah Fawcett hair, different cultures had their own reasons to covet their chicory plants.
We stumbled upon a surprisingly interesting, non-narcoleptic-fit-inducing study titled "Cichorium intybus: Traditional Uses, Phytochemistry, Pharmacology, and Toxicology." According to the authors, in Afghanistan, the root is used as a treatment for malaria. Folks in Bosnia and Herzegovina use all parts of the plant as, apparently, an all-purpose post-party medicine treating reproductive organs, hangovers, liver issues, lung cancer, and bile duct problems.
Italians use the leaves for its purported blood-cleansing abilities, though the study didn't indicate if they use the leaves to mop blood off of messy surfaces or if they take them internally. In India, different parts of the entire plant treat jaundice and other liver dysfunction, diabetes, and cough.
Iranians use the entire chicory plant for several purposes we won't even pretend to understand, so we'll just put them here:
- laxative (we definitely know what this means)
- tonic (this goes with vodka, right?)
- antipyretic (has something to do with setting things on fire?)
Many other Old World cultures value chicory for similar medicinal uses, the most consistent being liver, kidney, and digestive illnesses. It's also commonly used for hemorrhages and wounds and as a sedative.
Can your Starbucks barista top that? Before you ask her to try, first ask yourself...how well did you tip her for that last latte?
Sourcing Your Chicory Seeds from Seed Needs
We don't carry waterproof ammo cans, gas masks, crossbows, or freeze-dried storable food. If you ask us, we'd tell you that SHTF means "Seedlings Hate The Frost." But if you want to experiment with multi-purpose plants so that you're better prepared when, say, the government admits that aliens really are among us, or if you want a garden large enough to invite a crop circle, send us a signal!
Most of our customers just want enough seeds to get them through the next season or two, knowing that the most successful gardens grow from the highest-quality, freshest seeds. What we don't know about long-term food storage, we more than compensate for in our knowledge about keeping seeds at the right humidity and temperature for the best (and longest) viability.
We stand by our customers, and we stand by our products! All our seeds are guaranteed to grow within 180 days of their purchase date.Unfortunately, we're unable to honor refunds after the first 28 days of a zombie apocalypse.