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What is Cichorium?

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  • Written By: Helga George
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2016
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Cichorium is a genus of several species of blue-flowered plants in the daisy family, or Asteraceae. Two of these species, known as chicory, are cultivated and have a long history. Cichorium intybus, or common chicory, is grown for its leaves, which are often used in salads. They are known as endive, Belgian endive, or witloof, among other names. One subspecies, sativum, is grown for its large roots, often used to substitute for coffee in some parts of the world. This species is sometimes confused with true endive, Cichorium endividia, which has leaves that are also used as salad greens.

The common chicory plant has long, pointed leaves that are toothed. Normally, the wild plant grows to between 2 and 4 feet (0.6 and 1.2 m) tall, but some have been found growing to 6 feet (1.8 m) high. Some varieties used as herbs for salads have broad leaves. The plants are perennials with the flowers produced on hairy stems. Each flower lasts only one day.

This species of cichorium is originally from Europe and was utilized as a food source by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Common chicory was introduced into North America and Australia and became naturalized. Now it is considered a weed in the United States, particularly in no-till, or non-cultivated, fields of soybeans and corn. This type of chicory is a common sight among many roadsides in North America and Europe.

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The leaves of common chicory are often used in salads, such as the red varieties collectively known as radicchio. Belgian endive is grown underground or indoors in the dark. Plants grown without sunlight lack the bitterness found in the normal leaves. Belgium exports this special type of cichorium to a number of different countries. Chicory is more popular as a salad ingredient in Europe than in the U.S.

A subspecies of common chicory has a large root that is added to coffee or used as a coffee substitute. It is popular in many parts of the world, including the southern U.S. The use of chicory as a substitute for coffee gained popularity during difficult economic times, such as during the Great Depression. The plant lacks caffeine, however.

This root has been found to contain a substance called inulin. It is a long chain of sugars that is broken down during the process of roasting, to make fructose. This process is responsible for the sweetness of drinks made with chicory. The root of the subspecies used as a coffee substitute has greater amounts of inulin than those of the plants grown as a source of salad greens.

Cichorium is also used as forage for dairy cattle and sheep. The foliage is easily digested by animals. Its use as forage is most prevalent in New Zealand. The wild chicory found in the U.S. is a descendant of a variety that was cultivated for animal forage.

Chicory plants are typically grown from seed and do well in full sun if kept moist. They can withstand short periods of freezing. The timing of planting depends on the location of the crop. For Belgian endive, one should trim the leaves back, dig up the roots, and plant them diagonally in sand in a dark, cool room. When the foliage grows, it is harvested as a food source used mostly in salads.

True endive is also grown from seed in full sun. Plants should be spaced 1 foot (0.3 m) apart. When the plants have grown to be 1 foot (0.3 m) wide, the outer leaves should be pulled up over the center and tied, so the center leaves will lose their color and taste less bitter.

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