By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
Fall is the traditional time to harvest roots — it is the season when the cold-sensitive, above ground parts of the plants die back, and the energy returns underground. In many plants the root is an important storage organ, keeping hold of carbohydrates and nutrients during the dormant season. For this reason, we harvest many roots in the fall, when they are at their peak.
We are most familiar with the vegetable roots and tubers that grace our winter dishes (carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, etc…) However, one of the roots I am most enamored with is the humble and often-overlooked chicory. I’m sure you’ve seen this wild and weedy plant growing around our city environs. It is a very hardy creature and can grow in almost any soil. You’ll often see it along roadsides and sidewalks. It is most noticeable in late summer/early fall when its sweet blue flower is in full bloom.
Chicory is a good plant to know. It is a local wild edible, and the leaves, flowers and root can all be used in culinary creations. In fact, when you see large “dandelion” leaves sold in fancy grocery stores, more likely than not they are actually misnamed chicory leaves! Dandelion and chicory are closely related plants and both have bitter tasting leaves that are great for our digestive health.
Chicory is also the same plant as Belgian endive. When it is cultivated in the dark it produces small pale leaves that add a sophisticated bitter note to any meal.
The bitter taste of chicory is in fact where much of its benefits lie. It supports and strengthens digestive function because of its bitter constituents that enhance digestion, increase the flow of bile, and help with the absorption of nutrients. Similar to dandelion, chicory also possesses liver cleansing and detoxifying properties.
Chicory was traditionally used for gall stones, gout, indigestion and constipation; any issue related to the digestive tract may benefit from this useful plant. Either the leaves can be incorporated into the diet, or the root can be used as a tea. It is often used as a coffee substitute or added to coffee to reduce its over-stimulating effect; chicory root has a similar bitter and deep flavor, and a very dark color. Or, use it in chai: every fall I make a big batch of my herbal root chai tea blend, which features roasted chicory root - yum!
Beyond its bitter side, chicory is also a nutritive plant. It is high in folate and has often been used for anemia. It also contains a unique constituent in its root, called inulin, which is a special kind of starch. This inulin feeds our beneficial gut flora; it acts a prebiotic (rather than a probiotic). Using chicory root can therefore help to increase the good bacteria living in our digestive tract.
HOW TO USE:
To make a decoction (a simmered tea) place 1 Tblsp. of roasted chicory root in 2 cups of water; simmer in a small covered saucepan for 10 to 20 minutes. Then strain out the root, and add honey and/or milk to taste.
The young leaves are edible and can be added to salad, or sautéed like spinach. The older the plant gets the more bitter its leaves will become.
If neither of drinking nor eating large quantities of chicory appeal to you, then why not try your hand at a chicory infused vinegar? You can use this as a condiment on meals — dash it over roasted vegetables, or drizzle on salads. Or, use it as a digestive tonic and take a spoonful before or after meals…
Digestive Bitters in Vinegar
2/3 cup roasted chicory root
1/3 cup roasted dandelion root
1/3 cup burdock root
1/3 cup chamomile
Place all ingredients in a glass quart sized jar. Cover completely with apple cider vinegar, filling the jar to the top. Stir to remove any air bubbles and add more vinegar if necessary. Place a sheet of wax paper over the jar if you are using a metal lid (vinegar corrodes metal) or use a plastic lid. Label with the ingredients and date. Let this steep for 3 to 4 weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain out through a fine sieve or through cheesecloth. Bottle the resulting liquid in a dark glass bottle.
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
The Earthwise Herbal by Matthew Wood
This blog post — Chicory (Cichorium intybus Asteraceae): A Root for the Season — is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.