The bitter root

Chicory is commonly used as a coffee substitute

VERSATILE VARIETAL Chicory is a woody perennial weed with a variety of uses at home and in the garden.

Chicory root coffee may inspire thoughts of pastry and jazz, but this rugged roadside weed has a place in Gilroy gardens and landscapes.

Chicory is a woody perennial that comes in many different varieties, depending on the cultivar used: roots (var. sativum) and leaves (var. foliosum) are the most common. Chicory, occurring naturally, can indicate compacted soil. Luckily, its deep taproot help break up that compacted soil, plus it’s drought tolerant!

Chicory as food

Chicory is a highly versatile plant. It’s slightly bitter leaves are used in salads, the buds can be blanched, and the taproots are frequently roasted and ground up as a coffee substitute. You can reduce the bitterness by changing the cooking water 2 or 3 times. Roots are harvested before flowering stems emerge. These roots can be cooked and eaten the same as carrots or parsnips, ground into flour for bread, or used as a coffee substitute. Plus, chicory contains twice as much of the cancer fighting, heart-healthy polyphenols found in spinach!

Chicory description

A member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), chicory (Cichorium intybus) is one of those large, gregarious groups that may surprise you. For example, curly endive, Belgian endive, and radicchio are all types of chicory. Lettuce and dandelions are close cousins, while chicory’s distant cousins include sunflowers, artichokes, and yarrow. Also known as cornflower, bachelor’s buttons, coffeeweed, blue daisy, and wild endive, chicory’s flowers are composite, and leaves are normally toothed or lobed. Plants grow 10 to 40 inches tall. Flowers appear July through October.

How to grow chicory

In our planting zone (9b), chicory is a cool season crop that can be started in January and February, for an early summer crop, and again in July or August, for an early winter crop. This gives the seeds time to get started before the weather turns too hot or too cold. Summer’s heat causes chicory to bolt, but a light frost actually adds just a touch of sweetness. Seeds should be planted 1/4 inch deep and thinned to 12 inches apart. Avoid overhead watering, as the leaves are prone to rotting.

Chicory pests and diseases

Despite its rugged nature, there are some pests and diseases that can impact chicory. Bacterial soft rot, damping off disease, fusarium wilt, white mold, anthracnose, and downy mildews are all diseases that attack chicory. Aphids, cabbage loopers, beetles, leaf miners, thrips, and slugs and snails may feed on your chicory plants.

Chicory grows like a weed. Once established, you can pretty much ignore it until you decide to harvest whatever part you have a hankering for. And, hey, even the flowers are edible!

Learn more about edible landscaping at the South County Teaching and Demo Garden, found at St. Louise Hospital, 9400 No Name Uno, Gilroy. Kate Russell is a UCCE master gardener. Learn more at Call the Master Gardener Hotline at 408.282.3105 between 9:30-12:30pm, Monday through Friday.

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About Kate Russell
Kate Russell is a UCCE Master Gardener in Santa Clara county.