Introduction: This vigorous perennial has a history of cultivation dating back to the ancient Egyptians and has been especially popular as a salad plant in France, Belgium and Italy. It was introduced into North America as a food plant by early European settlers and is now naturalized across most of the country.
This is a rather confusing plant because it can be used in so many different ways. Apart from the cabbage (with its multitude of Brassica variations), few plants are as versatile as the underrated (in fact largely ignored) chicory. It has been grown for its leaves, hearts, flower stems, roots (for coffee) and forced shoots (known as chicons) and specific varieties have been bred for each purpose.
Some types of chicory are sometimes known as endive, which (understandably) leads to confusion with the closely related endive (Cichorium endivia). The big difference is that chicory is a perennial with a strong swollen tap root that can produce large succulent shoots in spring, whereas endive is an annual. Chicory is also more cold tolerant and slower growing.
Crop value: Chicory is the source of a range of delicious salad greens and deserves to be more widely grown. This neglect is no doubt because the simple large dandelion-like leaves can be very bitter (especially in warm weather). If you first tasted a bitter leaf you might not try chicory again!
To be really good, chicory has to be grown at the right time of year and picked at the right stage of growth. The best part is the blanched heart of the compact head, which is quite delicious and one of the best of all salad materials. As a bonus it is also available late in the year, when most lettuce is gone.
Nutritional content: Chicory leaves contain lots of vitamins A and C, as well as some vitamin E and folate. They are also rich in minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorus.
Chicory is higher in calories than most leafy greens, though at about 100 calories per pound that isn’t saying a lot.
Germ temp: 45 (60 – 65) 75˚F
Germ time: 7 – 14 days
Germination percentage: 70+
Viability: 4 – 6 – 8 years
Weeks to grow transplants: 4
Perennial (mostly grown as annual)
Hardiness zones 3 – 11
Growing temp: 45 (60 – 65) 75˚F
Plants per person: 5
Plants per sq ft: 1
Start 8 – 10 weeks before last frost
Plant out 4 weeks before last frost
Direct sow: 2 – 4 wks before last frost date.
Direct sow 8 – 12 wks before first fall frost
Days to harvest: 90 days +
Yield per plant: ½ – 1 lb
Yield per sq ft: ½ – 1 lb
Ease of growing: Chicory is a vigorous and fairly easy crop to grow, though you have to time it right so it gets suitably cool weather. This is especially critical if you want it to produce a sweet compact head of leaves.
Climate: Chicory is a cool weather plant, growing best at 60 – 70˚F. It is quite hardy and can tolerate low temperatures (these result in sweeter flavor and better color). In mild winter areas it can be grown right through the winter. It will grow well enough in warm weather too, but becomes so bitter as to be pretty much inedible.
pH 5.0 – 6.8
Chicory thrives in most soil types, but for the largest roots and easier harvesting, a loose, rich, moderately well-drained, but fairly moist soil is best.
Soil preparation: Incorporate 2˝ of compost or aged manure to supply organic matter. Add wood ashes for potassium and colloidal phosphate for phosphorus (or use an organic fertilizer mix).
Though chicory is a perennial, it is usually grown as an annual, as second year plants aren’t usually as good as first year plants.
Where: In cool climates chicory needs full sun, but in hotter ones it may benefit from light shade during the hottest part of the day.
When: In cool climates chicory can be used as a summer crop, but in warmer ones it is only grown in spring or fall.
Direct sowing: In areas with cool spring weather chicory can be treated like spring lettuce. Direct sow it 2 – 4 weeks before the last spring frost.
From transplants: You can grow chicory from transplants, started indoors 8 – 10 weeks before the last frost and planted out 4 weeks before the last frost.
Fall: Hot weather makes chicory leaves intensely bitter, so in warm climates it is normally grown as a fall crop. It is direct sown 8 – 12 weeks (depending upon the variety) before the first fall frost, so it can mature during a cooler part of the year. The seed is heat sensitive and doesn’t germinate well above 80˚F. See Lettuce for possible ways to overcome this.
Roots: To grow the roots for forcing or coffee, a suitable variety is planted some time in spring. It doesn’t need to be started very early, as it is quite fast growing and has all season to mature.
Transplants: Chicory is often grown from transplants, which are raised like those of the related lettuce.
Direct sowing: Plant the seed ¼ – ½˝ deep and 1 – 2˝ apart. When all have germinated start harvest thinning, to eventually reach the desired final spacing.
Roots: To grow roots for forcing, space the plants 4 – 5˝ apart in rows 18˝ apart. This maximizes the number of roots.
Beds: Chicory may be spaced anywhere from 6˝ – 9˝ – 12˝ – 18˝ apart, depending upon the variety and soil.
Rows: Space plants 12˝ apart, in rows 18 – 24˝ apart.
Chicory is an easy plant to grow (it commonly self-sows in my garden) and as a perennial it isn’t prone to bolting in its first year.
Weeds: It is important to keep the young plants free of weeds.
Water: This deep rooted plant is very drought resistant. However a lack of water makes the plants even more bitter than usual and increases their chances of bolting. Keep the soil evenly moist at all times.
Mulch: This is useful to keep down weeds and conserve moisture. In winter it can be used to protect the plants from extreme cold.
Blanching: The plants are sometimes blanched like those of endive to make them less bitter. The easiest way to do this is to cover the plant with an inverted flowerpot (close up the drainage hole). See Endive (below) for more on this useful technique to make plants more palatable.
Pests and diseases: Chicory retains a lot of its wild vigor and isn’t bothered by many problems. Slugs, snails and cutworms may attack it when young.
Tip burn: As the name suggests, the tips of leaves look like they have been burned. It is usually caused by excessively hot weather.
You can harvest individual leaves, as soon as they are of sufficient size. They are always somewhat bitter, but in hot weather they become so bitter they are uneatable.
The best part of the leaf chicory types is the blanched interior heart and to get these you must let the head form fully. You then harvest the whole head and remove all of the green outer leaves (you can eat these too, if they aren’t too bitter. After this you are left with the pale, slightly yellowish and delicious heart.
Storage: Store the leafy head like lettuce, in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to a week. Store the chicons in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.
Seed saving: Chicory sets seed easily if allowed to. The flowers are pollinated by insects and will cross-pollinate with endive (though apparently chicory won’t pollinate endive) or wild chicory (which is a very common wild flower). To keep a variety pure you must isolate it by a ½ mile, or cage it.
It is quite hard to separate the individual seeds from the pod (you have to crush them to release the seeds), so they are often stored in the form of dried pods.
Forcing the shoots: The roots are forced indoors to provide the tasty white shoots called chicons. This has become a major industry in Belgium and they are sometimes available in supermarkets under the name Belgian endive. They provide a fresh green vegetable in the middle of winter, when few others are available.
To grow chicons you dig the roots in late fall, after the tops have died down and they have been vernalized by cold weather. By this time they should be as big as parsnips. Cut off the dead top, leaving only an inch of stem. Also trim off the bottom of the root, so they are a uniform length of about 8˝. These are then stored in a cool root cellar, or in a trench in the ground, until needed.
For forcing the roots are planted in a deep plant pot, (as many as can easily fit when spacing them 2˝ apart). To start them growing they are watered and moved to a warm (50 – 60˚F) dark place.
The pale shoots take about 4 weeks to grow and are harvested when about 6˝ tall. The roots will usually produce 2 crops if well cared for. In large commercial operations they are now often forced hydroponically.
Volunteers: Chicory self-sows readily and might be considered a weed if it weren’t so useful. Not only is it edible and of medicinal value, but its bright blue flowers attract beneficial insects.
Nowhere is the chicory more highly esteemed than in Italy and a large number of types and varieties are available there. Some of these are now becoming available here too.
These closely resemble the wild types, but tend to be less bitter.
Red Rib: The green leaves have red stems and are very pretty.
Catalogna: There are quite a few of these. They have long strap-like leaves like a dandelion and are sometimes known as Italian dandelion. This is one of the least developed types of chicory and is very close to being a wild plant (it has been naturalized in my garden for at least 5 years). As an almost wild plant it is commonly eaten in spring, though it becomes impossibly bitter as the weather warms up.
Catalogna puntarelle: This is a catalogna type that produces an edible flower shoot in late winter or spring. This is somewhat bitter but in Italy (especially Rome) it is highly prized as a spring treat. These are excellent in salads, but can also be cooked.
Sugar Loaf types
These are fairly similar to the raddichios and produce similar compact heads of tight leaves in cold weather. They superficially resemble a Chinese cabbage and are quite a substantial food.
The heart of these heads is naturally blanched and is succulent, bitter/sweet and delicious. These leaves are almost universally pronounced to be superior to any lettuce. They can also be used as a cooked vegetable.
The seed is planted in late spring and early summer to mature in fall and winter, when they produce their dense heads. In very cold areas it helps to protect them with a thick mulch (even though this is a pretty hardy plant anyway). They are perennial and so independent they can be naturalized.
The roots can also be dug and forced indoors like witloof.
Sugar Loaf (Pain de sucre) (pan di zucchero)
Blanc de Milan
Witloof: This variety is grown for forcing and the resulting chicons are often called Belgian endive, even though it isn’t really endive.
Magdeburg: This is grown for its edible roots (for coffee).
Greens: The tender new spring leaves can be used in the same ways as the related dandelion, They are most often used as salad greens, but as the plant matures they become impossibly bitter. Blanching reduces this considerably and this probably led to the forcing of the roots.
Though we think of chicory as a salad plant it can also be cooked and deserves to be more widely used in this way. You can reduce its bitterness when cooking, by changing the cooking water after a minute or so.
Coffee: Chicory root has been widely used as a coffee substitute or extender and many people say it actually improves the flavor of coffee. It may also reduce its harmful effect on the liver.
To make chicory “coffee” the cleaned roots are dried thoroughly, until they are so brittle they snap easily. They are then ground to a powder and roasted in an oven until uniformly brown.
The drink is prepared by mixing a teaspoon of the roasted powder with a cup of boiling water. You can also add roasted sprouted barley, carob, cinnamon, or other goodies. It is sometimes mixed with an equal amount of coffee.
Originally bred in Northeastern Italy, this type of chicory has become very fashionable in recent years. It is prized for its small dense head of colorful, sculptural, spectacular, crisp, succulent and slightly bitter leaves. However it only tastes good when grown at the right time of year (in cold weather). Plants grown when it isn’t cold enough have been called rad-yuck-io.
Radicchio is cultivated in the same way as chicory. It can even be forced indoors in the same way to produce red chicons.
Varieties: From the gardeners viewpoint radicchio can be divided into two types, forcing and non-forcing. A percentage (sometimes a significant one) of both types won’t produce the desired compact heads. This is one of the reasons it is often quite expensive to buy.
Forcing types: These varieties need cold weather to stimulate them to produce a compact head. Cold weather may kill the outer leaves, but the colorful head will emerge from underneath them.
Non-Forcing types: Sometimes called chioggia types, these varieties produce a head even without cold weather. However you might have to stimulate them to head up by cutting off most of the top growth (leave only 2˝ of leaves). The resulting new growth should then form a head