You. Guys. I love chicory so much! I am a bitter, black coffee kinda gal, and chicory is deep, dark, and bitter—making it a perfect fit for me. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t have a black-coffee tooth that you can’t sweeten up chicory for your enjoyment. You can. In fact, everyone can enjoy chicory and reap the health benefits of this lovely plant.
Today, I’m going to tell you a bit about this herb as well as explain how to identify and forage for chicory this fall.
Health Benefits of Chicory (C. intybus)
Because chicory is a bitter root, it has all kinds of health benefits such as inulin for your microbiome, bitters for digestion, assisting the body in detox, appetite management, and blood sugar balance (Mase, 2013). While the herbalist campaign to save the dandelion is well under way, I think it’s time we start speaking up for dandelion’s cousin, chicory!
Herbal Energetics, Actions, and Indications of Chicory
No one ever really talks about chicory (although herbalists Jovial King and Guido Mase do a pretty good job covering it in their book, DIY Bitters) (King and Mase, 2016), which is a shame because it’s a super common, super yummy, and super useful plant!
Take one bite of chicory, and you will know it is bitter.
Bitter herbs tend to be cooling and drying to the body and are indicated in hot, damp conditions like stagnant lymph, blood, or liver, or for any kind of congestion. Bitter herbs have been shown to help with digestion, liver detox, weight management, and blood sugar regulation as well (Mase, 2013). Chicory is also high in inulin, a prebiotic starch known to support a healthy microbiome (Dandan et al., 2008). Most recipes call for roasted chicory, and while roasting chicory roots does decrease the inulin a bit (Vordorbruggen, 2016), there should still be enough to enjoy the benefits of it if you choose to roast it.
How To Forage For Chicory
Before you forage for chicory, it’s important to have a refresher on some wildcrafting basics:
First, make sure your source is clean—meaning at least 200 feet from busy roads and away from any pesticide or herbicide use. This means that although chicory might be abundant in your roadside ditches, you probably need to leave those and harvest a little more off-road.
Next, make sure your source is sustainable—meaning make sure you leave enough for the plant population to keep growing. Usually, when harvesting roots, this is pretty difficult because by harvesting the root you kill the entire plant. There are a few ways to avoid this, however:
- Make sure you harvest chicory after it seeds, as chicory spreads very easily through seed.
- Harvest only 1/3 of the chicory stand.
- Replant the top of the root crown in the soil, as many plants can come back from just a little root and a little tip (Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, n.d.).
Lastly, make sure you are 100% sure about the plant identification before you forage for chicory.
How To Identify Chicory
Chicory is a beautiful plant, so if you have a husband that only lets you plant pretty things in the front yard, this is one to cultivate if you aren’t lucky enough to find it growing wild in your area.
As giving as the dandelion is, chicory is just as giving. You can eat or use every part of the plant: greens, flowers, and roots. During the fall, however, you will mostly be harvesting and using the root of chicory. And, although it’s the roots we’re harvesting, it’s important to know how to identify young chicory leaves and flowers because the leaves look like other common herbs which means you’ll want to make sure and keep an eye on the correct plant for your fall harvest.
Chicory leaves are the most difficult to identify because they look like so many other spring greens, specifically dandelion and wild lettuce. However, with a few identification tips, you can begin to get to know chicory after some practice in the field. To start, let’s look at the leaves of a couple look-a-like plants compared to actual chicory leaves.
Dandelion: Smooth, long, jagged leaves form a basal rosette at the base of the dandelion. Leaves have deep lobes at the base of the leaf, and lobes lessen in depth toward the tip of the leaf. Lobes point straight out or backwards. Each plant has a single stem that is filled with a milky, white sap. The stem has no leaves on it and ends with a single, yellow flower at the top (Grieve, 1982).
Wild lettuce: Finely toothed, oblong shaped leaves are 6-18 inches long and alternate up the stem, getting smaller the further up them stem they go; very tall stem (possibly up to 6 feet high) has white, milky sap, leaves and stem have sharp hairs/spines, and multiple yellow flowers grow on each stem (Grieve, 1982).
Chicory: Large, lobed, and hairy leaves spread out at the base of the chicory plant. Lower leaves have deep lobes and are lance-like at the base of the leaf, and lobes lessen in depth toward the tip of the leaf. Stems branch out, are covered in fine hair, and have a milky, white sap in them. Leaves decrease in size up the stem, and each stem has multiple purple/blue flowers (Grieve, 1982).
Chicory flowers are the easiest part of this plant to identify. Chicory has a beautiful purple/blue aster flower that is hard to misidentify once it starts to fill out the tall leafed stems. In Botany in a Day, Thomas Elpel (2013) describes the petals of both chicory (purple) and dandelion (yellow) as “strap-shaped” with parallel edges (as opposed to having “tapered edges” like other aster flower petals) and “ray flowers that overlap all the way to the center of the flower”.
If you have been following chicory throughout the season, it won’t be difficult to distinguish chicory from dandelion or wild lettuce. Once the chicory flowers dry up and turn to seeds, it’s tall and covered in spent, large aster flowers. The roots tend to be darker, almost blackish, compared to dandelion roots, with more branches in the tap root compared to dandelion.
How To Forage For Chicory
Once you pull up the fall roots, cut off all of the leaves/stem, leaving about ½ an inch of leaf base over the root crown, and about 1 inch of the root top to re-bury for the possibility of new growth in the spring. Wash the roots, trying not to scrub off the bitter outer layer but making sure to get all of the dirt off. I sometimes let them soak for about an hour to make this part easier. I also tend to harvest after a big rain so that the roots come out more easily. If you pull up the plant and some root remains underground, you can either go digging for it, or leave it underground for new growth.
Once the roots are cleaned, chop them up into uniform pieces, dry them, then roast them in the oven or in a cast iron pan. The darker the roast, the deeper the taste. You can store them in a covered glass container and then grind them as you would coffee as needed (don’t grind ahead of time to avoid losing flavor). Or you can follow my recipe below for an herbal bitter coffee substitute.
DIY Bitter Chicory “Coffee” Recipe
I tend to be lazy about my herbal remedies, and grinding my chicory every time I want it just gets on my nerves (although I totally grind my coffee, so, there ya go). Instead, I like to mix chicory with other bitter, inulin-rich herbs and cacao nibs for a deep, bitter drink full of antioxidants. I don’t add any sweetener, but you can totally throw in some licorice root (no more than 5g per day total) or add coconut milk afterwards if you are a creamer lover.
My recipe is super simple:
Bold & Bitter Chicory “Coffee”
- 2 teaspoons each: roasted chicory root, roasted dandelion root, burdock root, and cacao nibs
- 3 cups of boiled water
- Simmer herbs in boiled water uncovered for 30 minutes.
- Strain out the herbs and enjoy!
Feel free to mix up large portions of equal parts herbs and use at 8 teaspoons for every 3 cups of water (or larger ratios of herbs to water). You can make about 3-days worth and store the leftovers in the fridge if you don’t mind drinking it cold or reheating it as well. Also, if this mix is too weak or too strong, just play around with the water:herb ratios until you find a strength that you like.
Now that you know that chicory is just as worthy of an herbal ally as dandelion, and you have a yummy recipe to try, head outside and see if you can spot some chicory. Once you can identify it, see if you can find a good spot to harvest it. I’d love to know how it goes for you, and don’t forget to come back here and share what ratios you like to use in your chicory “coffee!”
Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Herbal Immersion Program, https://chestnutherbs.com/online-herbal-classes/herbal-immersion-program/
Dandan Li, Jin M. Kim, Zhengyu Jin, Jie Zhou. (2008). Prebiotic effectiveness of inulin extracted from edible burdock. Anaerobe, 14(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anaerobe.2007.10.002
Grieve, M. (1982). A modern herbal. New York, NY:Dover Publications
King, J., & Masé, G. (2016). DIY bitters: reviving the forgotten flavor – a guide to making your own bitters for bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts, herbalists, and more. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press.
Masé, G. (2013). The wild medicine solution: healing with aromatic, bitter, and tonic plants. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Vorderbruggen, M., Halbkat, C., & Orr, E. (2015). Foraging. Indianapolis, IN: Random House LLC.