Chicory is one of the most common and appreciated edible wild plants. It is found throughout Italy and is part of the popular and rural tradition. In fact, there are over 100 recipes that can be prepared with this plant! It is quite easy to recognize for those who want to collect it, especially when it is in bloom, thanks to its splendid celestial flowers, which are also edible.
Wild chicory is also a plant rich in beneficial properties, always used in herbal medicine. Therefore, it’s a wonder of nature worth knowing about, and we will tell you about it in this article.
Identification and Names of Wild Chicory
Wild chicory, Cichorium intybus, belongs to the large botanical family Asteraceae. Many cultivated vegetables, such as radicchio, puntarella, catalogna, smooth leaf endive and curly endive, sugarloaf chicory, are derived from these species.
Origin of the Name Chicory
Chicory is a plant known and used for millennia. It has Mediterranean origins. According to some scholars, chicory (formerly cicòrea) derives from the Latin cicoria, the neuter plural of cichorium. For others, its derivation is of Egyptian origin, specifically from the term kichorion, meaning kio = io vado (I go) and chorion = campo (field), as it is found wild in fields. For the ancient Greeks, it was kichora or kichorea, while for the Romans, it was intybus agrestis. The Arabs, on the other hand, called it chichouryeh or chicourey.
In ancient times, it was an important food resource, as it could be consumed both cooked and raw. In the countryside, there were famous “cicurari” and “cicurare” who collected chicory and other wild species in uncultivated or clandestine fields. These herbs were then sold from house to house. Today, except in restricted areas of Puglia and Lazio, these gatherers have disappeared. However, a beautiful Calabrian folktale collected and transcribed by Italo Calvino remains to remind us of their poverty: “Le tre raccoglitrici di cicoria”. Wild chicory lives on in written memory, mentioned in proverbs, sayings, ancient sayings, customs, popular beliefs, and poems.
Botanical Characteristics of Wild Chicory
Chicory is a perennial plant with a biennial cycle. In the first year, the plant develops a basal rosette of leaves, while in the second year, it develops a tall flowering stem. Including the stem, the plant can reach a height of 1.5 meters, but it usually stays within half a meter. The root is a long taproot with numerous rhizomatous secondary roots. These roots are rich in a typical white, bitter, and sticky latex. When the stem develops, it is thin and tough, covered with hair. It is usually erect but with a zigzagging course and modest branching.
Wild chicory leaves come in two types: those of the basal rosette and those attached to the stem. The first ones form in autumn and are generally jagged or toothed, with a prominent midrib and a rough surface on the lower side. They are rather long, up to 30 cm. The surface is smooth, but it can be hairy if the growing climate is arid. The stem leaves are significantly smaller, practically leaflets. They have an entire margin, are lanceolate, and sessile. In the summer months, the plant dries out the leaves, but it can still be easily recognized by its flowers.
Chicory has spectacular ligulate flowers with a delightful blue color in various shades. Blooming occurs from summer until October and is heavily visited by bees and other pollinating insects. This is why many beekeepers sow wild chicory near beehives to provide nectar and pollen to insects when other blooms are scarce. You can find its seeds here. The flower has the peculiarity of opening in the morning and closing at fixed hours in the afternoon, depending on the latitude. Because of this, the species is also called the “floral clock,” and in mountainous areas, it “marks the time” for milking animals.
Where to Find Wild Chicory
Wild chicory is easily found in all Italian regions, although it becomes less frequent as you move south along the Tyrrhenian ridge. Its presence extends to lower mountain areas. The plant can thrive in various environments, including ruderal and arid areas, uncultivated meadows, paths, and roadside edges.
Properties and Uses of Chicory
Various parts of chicory are utilized, including the roots, leaves, tender stems, and flowers. Harvesting is done at different times of the year, depending on the vegetative state.
The roots are harvested from September to October from plants at the end of their flowering cycle. They contain numerous active principles such as choline, bitter substances, inulin, potassium, iron, and calcium. When used as a decoction or syrup, they are recognized for their diuretic, purifying, hypoglycemic, and cholagogic properties.
The leaves are harvested when they are tender, in the autumn of the first year or early spring. They are used in infusion and have tonic, digestive, liver-stimulating, diuretic, and mildly laxative properties. They can also be used to prepare a fresh juice for topical use, mixed with vinegar and rose oil, which can be applied to the skin to combat headaches. Chicory is considered a natural vasodilator and is highly energetic; 100 g of leaves contain a remarkable 16 kcal.
Wild Chicory in the Kitchen
Even more numerous are the uses of chicory in the kitchen. The root is used boiled or roasted and has a caramel-like flavor. When it is tender, it can be eaten raw in salads. Young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, mixed with other wild or cultivated species for a delightful mixed salad. Cooked chicory leaves are used in numerous regional recipes. They are prepared stewed, in broth, in a pan, sautéed, gratinated, as a soup, baked, in omelets, mashed, in timbales, as an ingredient in meatballs, crepes, ravioli, and savory pies. Raw flowers have a rather bitter taste and are mainly used to decorate salads. When they are still in bud, they are used to make pickles.
The Famous Chicory Coffee
In the past, chicory root was used as a substitute for coffee. Once harvested and cleaned of dirt, the root was sliced lengthwise and dried in small pieces in a wood-fired oven. The roasting was done very slowly to avoid the risk of burning the roots. Once dried, the pieces were ground and used as a coffee substitute or as part of coffee blends with barley and other roasted cereals. This use was popular when the cost of coffee was excessive and not affordable for everyone. Today, dried wild chicory root is returning as a “green” beverage, and you can find it online as soluble powder.