Right now it’s not one of the more common roadside plants in eastern Carolina. That might change in the next few years. If you take a drive north or west for any distance you’ll begin to see more of it. Its flowers look like blue daisies. They bloom only in the morning.
Wild chicory is a common perennial plant throughout much of our country and it’s plenty hardy here. It prefers relatively deep soils and tolerates dry conditions for moderate periods.
Sometimes called succory, particularly in Europe, it usually grows less than three feet tall and produces a long taproot similar to dandelion. Basal leaves also look a little like dandelion but have hairiness to them. Endive is its cultivated cousin.
Since many people eat endive it might be assumed chicory is edible as well. It is, but leaves are somewhat bitter even in young stages and the slight pubescence might turn one off if eaten raw. Some cultures appreciate the bitterness, but most Americans reject it. I like it slightly cooked with butter and salt. Beware of chemical residues on roadsides and other areas of heavy pesticide use.
Grazing animals find chicory quite palatable and that is why I predict you might see more of it in the future. Chicory has long been used as a forage crop for many reasons. In Europe and New Zealand it has become a major forage crop. Much of the breeding work for improved forage cultivars was completed in New Zealand.
Yields are high and cattle and sheep thrive on pastures containing chicory for several reasons. First of all, they like it and intake is good. Secondly, it is high in digestible nutrients and vitamins, especially vitamin A. Mineral concentrations are dense as well. Tannins and other chemicals in the leaves help control internal parasites too.
Domestic livestock production is not the main reason I expect to see more of it though. It has hit the hunting magazines and a hot new food plot crop. It establishes easily, is perennial and grows well in spring and summer. High mineral concentrations also support antler growth.
I suspect many hunting clubs will plant it more and that will facilitate its spread to our roadsides. That’s not all bad though. The flowers are beautiful and are even incorporated in some wildflower mixes already.
Does chicory have other uses? You bet! For generations it has been used as a coffee substitute and additive. Some even refer to chicory incorrectly as coffeeweed. True coffeeweed is a noxious plant called sicklepod that invades our crops.
Chicory roots are dug, cleaned, dried, ground and roasted. Many commercial coffee blends contain chicory. Although fresh roots are extremely bitter, when processed chicory lends a less bitter flavor to coffee. It also contains no caffeine and counteracts the effects of it.
Exciting research links chicory root to helping heal liver damage and treating breast, prostate, kidney and skin cancers. One side-effect is that chicory stimulates bile production, which could be problematic for those who form gallstones. Also, pregnant women should avoid too much of it. It promotes menstruation, which could cause a miscarriage.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.