The escarole, also known as smooth-leaved endive, or escarole chicory, is a widely used vegetable in traditional cuisine. It is a leafy green vegetable with excellent yield per individual piece. It’s easy to cultivate even in home gardens and is mainly consumed during the fall-winter season. However, cultivation operations begin in the summer.
Let’s explore the necessary considerations for the proper cultivation of this plant. We’ll start with its characteristics, then understand the suitable periods for sowing and transplanting. Finally, we’ll discuss the necessary care during the cultivation cycle.
Botanical Characteristics of Escarole
Escarole (Cichorium endivia latifolium) belongs to the family Asteraceae (or Compositae).
This species is closely related to another variety of endive that we’ve already encountered, which is the curly endive.
Together with lettuce, it forms the group of leafy vegetables, ideal for raw consumption.
The smooth-leaved endive is an annual herbaceous plant. Its leaves are not only smooth but also elongated and broad. They emerge from a very short stem and form a compact rosette of leaves. Generally, they are lobed or slightly toothed, with wide and fleshy ribs. As the compact and tightly packed rosettes reach full development, they tend to naturally turn white. The leaves, initially deep green, take on a very light color, typically white or yellowish.
Varieties of Smooth-Leaved Endive
There are many cultivable varieties of escarole, both in professional and domestic contexts. Let’s take a look at the main ones:
- The full-heart blonde
- The gardeners’ giant
- The green Florentine
- The dilusia
- The Bordeaux horn
Cultivation Period, Sowing, and Transplanting
Escarole is cultivated in open fields during the following periods:
- Late winter for spring harvests
- July-August for autumn harvests
- September, October for winter harvests
Usually, sowing takes place in a seedbed, and young seedlings are transplanted when they have developed 4-5 leaves.
In large-scale cultivation, direct sowing is used, followed by thinning of the seedlings. Overall, the cultivation cycle lasts between 45 and 60 days.
Soil and Fertilization
Smooth-leaved escarole prefers well-tilled, loose, and fresh soil rich in organic matter. In home gardens, fertilization can be done using mature manure, a month before the anticipated transplanting, or by using the result of home composting before transplanting. The latter can be substituted with worm humus.
Spacing and Irrigation
Maintaining the proper transplant spacing is essential for the correct growth of escarole. The escarole heads become quite large and therefore need a certain amount of space.
A distance of 30 cm should be maintained between the seedlings. For rows, we recommend a distance of at least 40 cm.
<Irrigation is important, especially during the initial growth stages, particularly if cultivation begins in the midst of summer. Over time, irrigation should be reduced, as there could be a risk of rot formation, given that the base of the head is always in contact with the soil. It’s important to avoid waterlogging.
To grow smooth-leaved escarole properly, it needs to be freed from the presence of weeds. To limit the need for weeding and irrigation, natural mulching can be employed. This should be done shortly after transplanting, before the escarole head becomes too large. Another advantage of mulching is to create a barrier between the moist soil and the base of the plant, thereby reducing the risk of rot formation.
This agricultural practice aims to achieve whiter, tender, and crisper escarole heads. Their flavor will be more pleasant and less bitter. As mentioned, escarole heads tend to close naturally, and when fully developed, the heart of the head naturally turns white. To encourage and expedite this natural tendency, about twenty days before the anticipated harvest, the leaves are tied together at mid-height. This can be done using an elastic band, raffia, or other ties.
This method ensures perfect blanching of the plant. The tying should be done on well-developed heads, and the leaves should be dry to prevent internal rot.
Biological Pest Defense
The pests that attack smooth-leaved escarole are essentially two: aphids and snails. The aphids are active mainly in spring. It’s important to detect their presence early by inspecting the plants frequently. These aphids tend to hide at the center of the head. To counter aphids, we recommend applying natural macerates, such as nettle and garlic.
Snails, on the other hand, are more active during the autumn. Their damage to escarole is more visible than that of aphids, as they primarily attack the outer leaves of the head, causing significant erosion.
To tackle snails, traps made with beer are recommended.
Uses of Smooth-Leaved Escarole
Escarole finds its place in various dishes of our regional cuisine. In Neapolitan cuisine, for example, its leaves are often used to prepare flavorful rustic pizzas. Smooth-leaved escarole is a vegetable that is consumed raw, in salads, especially in spring and summer. In the winter months, cooked escarole forms the base of delicious and nutritious soups.