By: Teo Spengler
In its native range near the Mediterranean, chicory is a wildflower with bright, happy blossoms. Read on for information and tips on picking chicory leaves and harvesting chicory roots.
Chicory Plant Harvest
Chicory started out as a pretty blue wildflower growing like a weed around the Mediterranean region in Europe. Although it has been cultivated for over 1,000 years, it hasn’t changed much from its wild form.
Many parts of the chicory plant are edible, and it is a vegetable used in three different forms. Some chicory is grown commercially for its hefty roots that are dried and roasted. When ground, the chicory root is used as a coffee-type drink.
Chicory in the garden is usually witloof or radicchio. Both can be grown for their greens, and the chicory plant harvest involves picking chicory leaves. They are slightly bitter like dandelion greens, which has also earned them the name Italian dandelion.
The third use of the chicory plant applies to witloof chicory alone. The roots are harvested and used to force new, edible leaves called chicons.
When to Harvest Chicory
If you are wondering when to harvest chicory, the timing of harvesting chicory varies depending on how you want to use the plant. Those growing witloof chicory for its greens need to start picking leaves while they are tender but sufficiently large. This can happen three to five weeks after planting.
If you are growing radicchio chicory, the plant may grow in loose leaves or heads. The chicory plant harvest should wait until the leaves or heads are fully grown.
How to Harvest Chicory Root
If you are growing witloof chicory and plan to use the roots for forcing chicons, you’ll need to harvest the crop just prior to the first autumn frost. This is usually in September or October. Remove the leaves, then lift the roots from the soil.
You can trim the roots to a uniform size, then store them for a month or two at a temperature around freezing before forcing. Forcing occurs in complete darkness by standing the roots in wet sand and allowing them to produce leaves. The new leaves are called chicons and should be ready for harvest in about three to five weeks.
Resembling large carrots, roots harvested as a vegetable are ready once the crown reaches about 5-7 inches (12.5-18 cm.) in diameter. The usable portion of the taproot may be up to 9 inches (23 cm.) long. After cleaning and removing soil, the roots may be cubed and roasted for grinding. Ideally, they should be used within a few days of harvest, as they typically don’t store well for long periods.
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How To Grow Chicory and Harvest Chicory – A Step-by-Step Guide
Growing your own food will ensure that you have access to fresh vegetables all year round. Furthermore, you will also be assured that no harmful chemicals were used in growing them.
Are you looking to add more variety to the salad greens in your garden?
If you are, then why not grow chicory?
It may be an acquired taste but this power food will definitely be a great addition to your garden.
Plus, it is quite easy to grow. So, do you want to know how to grow chicory? Just read on below and you will be harvesting your homegrown chicory in no time.
Chicory Medicinal Properties
The list of health benefits is a long one, and more can be added.
- Extract from chicory plant root is believed to possess anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and sedative properties.
- Nursing mothers have consumed the milky sap from chicory plants to help increase their milk flow – or to reduce it when too much milk is being produced. However, this use can be hotly debated, with some folks recommending against using chicory when nursing.
- The flowers from the plant have been used to help alleviate inflamed eyes.
- Crunching up or “bruising” leaves from a chicory plant have been used to rub directly onto a swollen area of the body, or in poultices created to treat the same condition.
- The wild plant may also be helpful in treating liver and gallstone problems. But, some folks have warned that taking chicory when gallstones are already present could make the problem worse due to a possible increase in bile movement.
- Root extract may also help lower blood sugar levels, and weaken the pulse.
- Leaf extract could possess the same properties as noted just above, but likely do so to a lesser degree.
- The plant could help prevent or delay diabetes.
- Bowel movements could be improved by the consumption of chicory root extract.
- A diet that includes inulin or pectin along with 15% oligofructose may help reduce the growth of cancerous tumors. Both inulin and oligofructose are found in chicory root. Taking chicory may help prevent or fight both breast and colorectal cancers.
- Consumption of chicory root could help reduce knee, hip, join, and arthritis stiffness – and pain.
- Chicory has been shown to improve renal function in rats with renal injury. (source)
- It can also help positively influence hyperglycemia and bowl movement. (source)
- Oligofructose derived from the inulin like the type found in chicory root could reduce the “hunger hormone” known as ghrelin – therefore reducing the appetite and helping in a weight reduction plan.
- Root extract may also be helpful in treating jaundice.
- The Studies on Industrial Importance and Medicinal Value of Chicory Plant report indicates chicory could be beneficial in fighting heart disease and digestive problems.
- One of the many digestive woes chicory can help curtail is acid reflux.
- The inulin in chicory plants also harnesses it prebiotic compounds to help promote the growth of good gut bacteria. Chicory is believed to help facilitate the growth of bifidobacteria in particular, a good bacteria that is most often consumed from cheese or yogurt.
- Chicory might reduce LDL cholesterol levels in the body due to its inulin composition.
- The body’s immunity system may also be bolstered by the consumption of chicory. The phytochemicals in the healing plant may behave as antioxidants can help remove free radicals from the bloodstream.
- Chicory root extract’s natural sedative properties may reduce anxiety and – or allow it to be used as a sleep aid.
- The wild weed can help increase urine volume, and allow root consumption to be used as a natural diuretic, while possibly improving overall kidney health.
(NOTE: If you are not interested in growing Chicory, but just finding the plant and using it, try going to the Nature's Restaurant Online site for Chicory.)
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) leaves. The leaves from this plant are a highly appreciated vegetable all over Europe. Often grown without light (Blanching) which makes them less bitter and white. A variation of this plant is sold as Endive (Cichorium endivia). This plant is very common to see along the side of roads and walking paths.
Is the growing of this plant compatible with Natural farming, Ecoagriculture or Eco friendly agriculture, Ecological farming, Sustainable agriculture, Agroforestry or Agro-sylviculture and Permaculture: This plant works well with Natural farming, no-till gardening methods. You have to disturb the soil when harvesting the roots, but there is no need to till the soil, especially if the soil is loose, and open. If you will not be harvesting the roots, and growing just for the greens, the soil around this perennial will never need disturbing.
Like many plants, there are the two basic ways of getting this plant into your garden. One is by seed, the other by transplanting mature plants.
Seeds: Gather the seeds, and plant right after gathering them in late summer or early fall, or save for planting in the spring after the ground thaws. This is a plant you can buy seeds for in most seed catalogues. If you buy seeds in the spring, plant right after the ground thaws up to the normal time you would plant most sensitive vegetables, or wait until late summer.
Soil & Site: Though this plant does well in heavy soils, give them a better chance by turning heavy soil over and raking smooth. If you want to grow them for the roots, you need to have loose, loamy soil for 25 cm (10 inches) deep. They need a good amount of sun, but other than that, they are fairly tolerant of a variety of conditions. They can handle dry conditions very well, but do better with regular moisture. A very good plant for gardens with hard clay soils if you are growing for the greens only.
Planting: You can put one seed per 3 mm (1/8 inch) deep inch hole spaced about every 30 cm (12 inches) or, spread sparsely over the soil, rake lightly, tamp down and leave it other than watering. Keep the soil moist until established. A thin mulch will help keep the soil around the seeds moist.
Transplanting: You can transplant in the spring or fall. In the spring, before the plant produces a stalk, it is easy to mistake for a Dandelion. Once the plant forms a central stalk, you know it must be a Chicory, as Dandelions never produce a stalk. If you find some in the summer or early fall, make note of where they are and wait until the leaves are falling from the trees before you transplant. You have to go down quite a way to get a lot of the root. If done in the fall, cut off most of the upper stalk, leaving about 10 cm (4 inches) above the ground. If done in the spring, cut off the stalk if it has one, but not the basal (base) leaves. Using a shovel, make four cuts in the ground forming a square around the base of the plant. On the last cut, pry out the plant. Put in a bucket, cardboard box, or shopping bag and take home and plant. If it was transplanted in the spring, water well until it starts re-growing a stalk, if done in the fall, put mulch over it. You should have it take unless you broke off too much of the root.
Harvesting: Before the plant flowers, some people find the leaves not too bitter to eat raw, but once there are flowers on the plant, the leaves are so bitter that you must boil them in water (pouring the water away) before using in meals. However, they are not bitter because of any poison that will hurt you, it is just a taste issue. There are cultures that appreciate the bitterness, and I have to say, after years of eating the leaves from this plant and the Dandelion, you do grow used to it to the point it is not unpleasant.
You can harvest the roots all season long, but they are best in the early spring or later in the fall. Just dig up with shovel. In heavy soils, the roots can be multiple, thin roots that aren't much use. In soft, loamy soils, there tends to be a nice, useful, single tap root.
Using: Once boiled and the water poured off, you can use the leafy greens in any recipe. I find they go well with tomato sauces and in stir-fry's. I suggest that if you are not used to the bitter taste, boil for longer than is needed to cook them, pour off the water, add fresh water, bring to a boil again, pour that water off, then use the greens. It is true you will lose some of the nutrients by doing this, but it is a good way to get used to the taste, and you can do only one water change in time. You can also deprive them of sun for a week or two before harvesting the leaves, which helps reduce the bitterness somewhat. Follow the instructions in the Dandelion section for how to do that. Cut off the stalks before doing this - you won't hurt the plant.
There are different uses for the Chicory roots, and you can find them by following the recipe links below the description. I personally only use them one way: I use them the way I use Dandelion roots for coffee. Well washed, chopped up, roasted and stored until I put some in water the night before for making coffee with the next morning. My personal favorite is to mix half and half roasted Chicory and Dandelion root in a jar and use that mix for the coffee water. See Dandelion section for more on how I do it.
- USDA Plant Hardiness Zone: 2-9(More information on hardiness zones).
- Soil pH: 4.5-8.3 (best is 5.5-7.5)
- Plant Size: generally 30-100 cm (10 to 40 inches), however can grow up to 1.5 meters (5 feet)
- Duration: Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Quite variable, even on the same plant. Some are Lanceolate, while some are Pinnatisect. Easiest way to describe them is say the bigger leaves look like Dandelion leaves, while leaves on stalks (Dandelions don't have stalks) can look like Dandelion leaves or completely smooth edged (usually the smaller leaves). Base of leaves on Stalks wrap around each side of the stalk, but not all the way around.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Arrangement) on stem: Alternate
- Leaf Size: Highly variable: 5-35 cm (2 to 14 inches) long
- Leaf Margin: Quite variable, even on same plant. Some are deeply lobed with an irregular sawtooth, some are perfectly Entire (smooth edged)
- Flowers: Usually in the blue range: bright blue to light sky-blue to cornflower-blue to mauve-blue to mauve. Can be mixes of colors on same plant. Each flower can be a mix of colors. Rarely: white or light pink. 2-4 cm (3/4 to 1 1/2 inches) wide
- Fruit: small seeds, tan to brown sometimes spotted, wedge shaped with wide end having short whitish fuzz.
- Stem: Green to reddish-brown. Hairy near base, no hairs on upper sections.
- Habitat: Needs full sun, or very little shade. Rocky, sandy, or clay soils. Can grow in acidic or alkaline soils. Soils need to be well drained, but prefers moist soils. Waste areas, grasslands, roadsides, abandoned fields, edges of woods.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- Interactive USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.
Typical Chicory plant. Picture taken in mid August.