Foraging for Chicory Greens

Chicory (Cichorium pumilum) is a native plant of western Asia, North Africa, and Europe and belongs to the Asteraceae family, along with the herbs arnica, burdock, boneset, calendula, chamomile, cronewort (mugwort), coltsfoot, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, feverfew, gravel root, grindelia, liferoot, milk thistle, tansy, yarrow, valerian, wormwood, and wild lettuce. The family also contains the foods sunflower seeds, lettuce, true artichokes, sun chokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), escarole, and endive. And it contains the decorative flowers asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, bachelor’s buttons, daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, and zinnias.

Chicory was cultivated 5,000 years ago by Egyptians as a medicinal plant. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it as a liver tonic, sedative, and appetite stimulant. Ancient herbalists considered the bruised leaves to make a good poultice for swelling and inflamed eyes. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used chicory as a vegetable and in salads. Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny mentioned chicory in their writings. Around 30 BC, the Roman poet Horace ate chicory as part of his vegan diet: “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae” (“As for me, olives, chicory, and mallows provide sustenance”). Galen of Pergamon, a Roman physician of Greek ethnicity living in the second century AD what is now Turkey, gave chicory the name “Friend of the Liver,” because of what he considered to be its stimulating effect on that organ.

Medieval monks raised chicory. When coffee was introduced to Europe, the Dutch combined chicory root with the coffee beans. Northern Europeans began cultivating it as animal forage in the early 17th century.

In 1766, Frederick the Great banned the importation of coffee into Prussia. Brunswick innkeeper Christian Gottlieb Förster responded by developing a coffee substitute, which he began manufacturing in 1769 in Brunswick and Berlin. There are also references to the use of wild chicory root as a coffee additive in colonial America. In 1779, Scottish scholar James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, described “chicoree,” which the French cultivated as a pot herb (leafy green vegetable). By 1795 there were at least 22 chicory factories in Brunswick.

In 1808, Napoleon initiated the Continental Blockade, which deprived the French of most of their coffee. When the blockade was lifted, the French continued to use chicory as a coffee additive, because they believed it was good for their health and improved the flavor of coffee. Early 19th century French chefs and writers believed chicory to be a sedative, whose effects were a perfect complement to the stimulating effects of the caffeine in coffee. In the 19th century, its use as a coffee additive and substitute became widespread in France and areas of French cultural influence like Louisiana. By the 1840s, the port of New Orleans was the second largest importer of coffee (after New York). Louisianans began to add chicory root to their coffee when Union naval blockades during the American Civil War cut off the port of New Orleans, and created a tradition that continues to this day. Chicory was also adopted as a coffee substitute by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and has become common in the United States. Camp Coffee, a coffee and chicory blend, has been sold in the United Kingdom since 1885, and was used during the Second World War.

In the United States, chicory root has long been used as a substitute for coffee in prisons. The wild plant grows throughout the United States and much of Canada.

In folk medicine, fresh chicory root was believed to fight pulmonary consumption. An extract of 1 ounce (2 teaspoons) of root or dried herb to a pint of boiling water was used to combat jaundice and liver enlargement. The mixture was boiled, then simmered for 10 minutes then the solids were strained out, and the liquid was cooled and taken at 8 to 12 ounces per day. The Cherokee used it as a nerve tonic, and the Iroquois used the extract as a wash and poultice for lesions and sores. Syrup of chicory was used as a laxative for children. Modern herbalists say that chicory increases bile production, moderates a rapid heart rate, lowers cholesterol, and destroys bacteria.

Many of the benefits of chicory are found in the leaves, which contain flavenoids and tannins. These substances have powerful antioxidant activity. Antioxidants are free-radical scavengers, meaning they can help undo cellular damage and help prevent cancer.

Chicory helps:

  • Reduce allergic reactions: A 1999 study confirmed that Cichorium intybus (Chicory) inhibits mast cell-mediated immediate-type allergic reactions.
  • Lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level and triglycerides: Another 1999 study found that a compound called fructooligosaccharide inulin decreases the serum triglycerides by inhibiting the hepatic fatty acid synthesis and at the same time reducing production of low density lipoproteins LDL).
  • Reduce inflammation and fight cancer: A 2005 study reported that chicory contains fermentable fructans that enhance the growth of bifidobacteria in your intestines, and also provide anti-inflammatory effects. Bifidobacteria regulate your intestinal microbial balance, inhibition pathogens and harmful bacteria, modulate immune responses, inhibit colon cancer, produce vitamins, and convert nutrients into bioactive molecules. Chicory also inhibits pro-inflammatory prostaglandin E(2) and cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2).
  • DigestionA 2001 study confirmed that inulin and oligofructose share the basic common characteristics of dietary fibers, that is, saccharides of plant origin, resistance to digestion and absorption in the small intestine, and fermentation in the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids that are absorbed and metabolized in various parts of the body. Moreover, this fermentation induces a bulking effect.
  • Prevent obesity and diabetes: A 2005 study confirmed that dietary inulin-type fructans extracted from chicory root may modulate the production of peptides, such as incretins, by endocrine cells present in the intestinal mucosa. This suggests that chicory may have an important role in the management of obesity and diabetes through its capacity to promote secretion of gastrointestinal peptides involved in appetite regulation.

At just 7 calories per cup of raw greens, chicory is an excellent low-calorie source of vitamins and minerals. One cup (29 grams) of chicory greens contains 108 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin K, and one-third of the DV for vitamin A. The greens also are a good source of vitamin Cfolate, and manganese. Chicory greens contain minerals like calcium, copper, and iron.

Nutrients in 1 Cup Raw Chopped Chicory Greens

Nutrient

Amount

DV

vitamin K

86.3 mcg

108%

vitamin A

1658 IUs

33%

vitamin C

7 mg

12%

folate

31.9 mcg

8%

manganese

0.1 mg

6%

fiber

1.2 g

5%

calcium

29 mg

3%

potassium

122 mg

3%

vitamin B6

0.03 mg

2%

riboflavin

0.029 mg

2%

magnesium

8.7 mg

2%

iron

.03 mg

1%

thiamine

0.017 mg

1%

protein

.05 g

1%

phosphorus

13.6 mg

1%

niacin

0.1 mg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

1%

Calories

7

0.35%

Chicory plants are available and harvested during spring and summer by cutting off just below the rosette. Chicory greens may be eaten as a salad or cooked.  Young chicory leaves are used for salads while the matured leaves are cooked with other vegetables.  A common salad in Italy, puntarelle, is made with chicory greens. Roots are dug up, washed and roasted until they turned dark brown. The roots are powdered and brewed like coffee.

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