A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Family: Compositae or Asteraceae: composite, daisy, or sunflower family
Other Names: blue sailors, succory, and coffeeweed; also called cornflower, although that name is more commonly applied to Centaurea cyanus. Common names for foliosum varieties of chicory include endive, Belgian endive, French endive, red endive, radicchio, sugarloaf, witloof (white endive)
Healing Properties: lowers blood lipids, soothes inflamed eyes, detoxifies intestines, promotes urination (diuretic); ideal for liver and gall bladder
Symbolic Meaning: faithfulness in love, bitter longing, the vegetation goddess’s love for the sun god, the soul’s love for the higher self
Planetary Affiliation: Jupiter, Saturn
Chicory lettuce is one of the few vegetables—next to leeks and lamb’s lettuce—that is robust enough to defy cold wind and the first frosts when all of the other vegetables have long since been harvested. Common chicory relatives in the northern climates are endive lettuce, white endive, radicchio, and sugar loaf. Sugar loaf—an interesting name, given that it’s rather bitter—makes a very large head, similar to cabbage in size and compactness; and though its leaves are relatively tender, it can withstand quite a strong frost. Sugar loaf can be eaten raw in salads or stewed as a vegetable, and nicely complements beef. Less bitter endive lettuce is also hardier than regular lettuce; in northern climates it can be planted in August for tasty fall salads. Radicchio, originally from Italy, is closely related to sugar loaf and makes for a colorful addition to any salad with its red, white-ribbed leaves. White endive or witloof is a crisp, yellow-white, torpedo-shaped salad plant whose cultivation is very work-intensive; fortunately, it’s available in most supermarkets nowadays.
Most people do not know that the endive plant is none other than beautiful blue-flowering chicory that grows wild along roadsides and pathways, found over the entire northern half of the globe. And it blooms readily: if a gardener leaves chicory lettuce in the garden over the winter, the next year it will blossom back into this typical divaricating flowery shrub. Chicory flowers from midsummer and on into the fall, but the blossoms only open on sunny days. Historically, each blossom blooms for only one day—from exactly 5:00 until 11:00 AM. This cosmic rhythm is so exact that the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) planted chicory in his famous flower clock in the botanical garden in Uppsala. (Nowadays this rhythm seems to have been disturbed, with the flowers blossoming into the afternoon without necessarily following the sun as they used to. It is surmised that electromagnetic disturbances such as microwave radiation and WiFi may be responsible for this.)
Illustration 29. Chicory (Joachim Camerarius, Neuw Kreütterbuch, 1586)
Toward the end of the eighteenth century in northern Europe, when coffee was exorbitantly expensive, roasted chicory root was added to coffee beans as a stand-in. Indeed, the Prussian king Fredrick the Great (1712-1786), ever ready to reduce the outflow of capital spent on luxury imports like coffee, encouraged the extensive cultivation of chicory. The addition of chicory makes coffee stronger and darker; the French acquired a taste for this mocca faux(false coffee) and brought it to their colonies in America. (The lasting Southern preference for bitter, dark coffee later got a boost during the Civil War, when the Yankee blockade cut Louisiana off from oversea coffee imports; to this day one can still find roasted chicory root brewed with coffee in New Orleans. Indeed, the French, too, like roasted chicory root in their coffee today.)
As is often the case with culture, one practice begets another. In 1830, Flemish gardeners began planting chicory roots in boxes and letting them bud underneath a clean layer of turf and sand to keep them blanched while sprouting. They marketed the harvested product as Brussels chicorée or witloof. But they can’t be credited with the inspiration; in earlier times the shoots of wild chicory were covered with a basket or a pot to bleach them for milder taste.
Chicory Lore and Magic
Many would be surprised to learn that chicory was once a highly esteemed, even sacred plant. In pre-Celtic times the plant was seen as an embodiment of the goddess of vegetation, the lovely daughter of Mother Earth. As her lover and husband is none other than the radiant sun god, son of the highest heavens, the chicory goddess always watches for him with her comely blue eyes. For the Greeks the plant was the enchanted nymph Cynthia, the lover of radiant Phoebus (the sun god Apollo). It’s not surprising, then, that an old name for chicory common in the Middle Ages was sponsa solis: sun’s bride.
The chicory-maiden lived on in the folklore of later eras. One tale concerns a young knight who pledged his love to a blue-eyed girl before riding eastward to join the crusade aiming to free the holy city of Jerusalem. Faithfully, she awaited his return, standing by the roadside every morning, looking with tearful eyes to the east. When her parents urged her to take another man, she answered defiantly: “I would rather turn into a common flower in the field”—at which point God turned her into a chicory flower.
As such, in traditional flower lore chicory stands for true love. When a damsel handed her knight a chicory flower, she without words told him:
The chicory flower so heavenly blue
always turns its face to the sun;
In the same way my heart turns to you
and promises to be true.
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, however, chicory found its place among the other bitter herbs, symbolizing either the suffering of the Lord or Passover herbs that the Children of Israel ate while in bondage in Egypt. In Catholic regions the faithful bride of the sun was turned into a cursed maiden, and the flower of unremittent love into a symbol of sinful pride. One clerical legend tells of a maiden drawing water from a well on a hot summer day when Jesus and his disciples passed by. Tired and thirsty, the holy men asked for a drink. But the hard-hearted girl refused, saying: “What am I, your maid? Get your own water!” Thereupon the Lord cursed her to stand as a chicory flower on the wayside, to do penance until Judgment Day.
Despite these exceptions, the lore of the sun bride’s immense love of the sun lived on throughout the Middle Ages. Chicory was often included in love charms or used as an oracle in matters of love. Maidens plucked the flower buds before sunrise and placed them in their corsets, murmured magical words such as, “O chicory, growing on the wayside / My hand has plucked you now for luck / Now please send to me my own dearest one / do not make me wait in vain like you have had to.”1 If the flower bud later opened, it was seen as a sign of good luck, promising good fortune in love. Married women added the blossom to their cooking so that their husbands remained faithful.
The magic of the chicory was considered to be especially potent if the root was dug up when the moon was in the sign of Leo or, more specifically, at two o’clock on the day of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29). For digging it was best to use a stag’s antler, or a piece of wood from a tree struck by lightning. The reward of such pains was great: any person touched with this chicory root would instantly fall in love with the holder. But not all shared in such beliefs. Indignant over such heathen customs, abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) claimed that, quite to the contrary, anyone who had such a root would be hated. It was also believed that such a root could be worn as a protective amulet, as it could break any magical fetter, even if fettered while sleeping. And placed under the pillow, the root could make thieves visible in dreams.
The specification of digging a chicory root with a stag’s antler is not an arbitrary custom. In pre-Christian Europe the stag or hart (male elk) was considered the sun god in animal form. The Celts called him “Cernunnos,” the companion of the White Goddess. By using a hart’s antler to dig the root, the magician or herb gatherer identifies with the sun god, for it is only he who dares touch the exalted plant goddess. (As gold is also attributed to the sun, the plant could also be dug up with a golden blade.) Extending the hart antler theme, the German and Dutch terms “hintläufe” and “hintloop” (doe’s legs) and “hirschsprung” (stag’s jump) are other names for wild chicory, implying that the plant, whose flowers constantly turn toward the sun, is a doe following her stag. The medieval legend of the St. Hubertus stag is a later Christian interpretation of the Celtic myth of the dark god of the underworld, who hunts and kills the sun stag in the dark, nebulous days of November (Samhain). In the Christian version the huntsman Hubert perceived Christ as an apparition of radiant heavenly light between the antlers of the hart he was about to shoot. (This image appears on the label of the herbal digestif Jägermeister, which means “master huntsman.”)
Occasionally chicory has white blossoms; these are considered to be especially powerful. If dug at the right time and with the proper incantation, whoever is in possession of white chicory will never be harmed by arrow or sword—and can become invisible at will. The best time to gather white chicory is on the early morning of Mary’s Ascension Day/Assumption of Mary (August 15). Heading out before sunrise, the herb gatherer must be careful to neither speak a word nor be spoken to by anyone, as such would be a bad omen. He could only speak upon reaching the plant, when, facing east, he should recite:
I greet you in God’s name, dear chicories, all of you.
Greetings to you in front of me and to those behind me:
Staunch the blood and heal the wounds.
And keep the power lent to you
by God and the holy Mary.2
Then, after blessing the plant three times with the sign of the cross, the gatherer would dig out a root with an antler, a wooden stick, or a gold coin. (He must not use iron, which is believed to drive off healing spirits.) Then the root was quickly fastened to a stave so that its power would not flee, for it was “as swift as a deer or stag.”
And, finally, it was believed that demons could be driven off with chicory. A traditional saying tells us:
Wild marjoram, chicory, and St. John’s wort
Cause the devil pain and hurt.
As such, it’s not surprising that chicory root was traditionally given to women to hold in their hand during childbirth.
The Healing Virtues of Chicory
Adding to its rich list of assets, chicory is also a valuable healing plant, especially for liver and gall bladder ailments. I myself was able to cure a bad case of hepatitis in India with the help of tea made of the stems. In India chicory is cultivated in rather large fields, with mainly the seeds used as a condiment. Ground seeds are used in a refreshing drink (thandai) enjoyed during hot summer days in the Ganges River Valley in Uttar Pradesh.
In European folk medicine, a tea is brewed from the root that is harvested in the fall. As the tea has a detoxifying, “blood cleansing” effect, it is helpful for those suffering from kidney problems, rheumatism, gout, or a weak spleen. In the Galenic theory of the four humors chicorium is classified as “bitter, rarified, earthy, cold to the second degree, and dry to the second degree.” According to Galenic physicians the plant has the signature of Saturn, and so therefore it’s effective for flushing excessive “bitter, black gall” (melancholia) out of the body, simultaneously freeing the soul from the poison of bitter, melancholy thoughts. British Herbal astrologist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), who classified chicory as a plant belonging to Jupiter, wrote: “It drives forth choleric and phlegmatic humours [and] opens obstruction of the liver, gall, and spleen.” To this day phytotherapists recognize chicory as a detoxifying agent for the liver and pancreas.
In Indian Ayurvedic medicine chicory, called “kasni,” is also a highly valued plant. Tea made from crushed chicory seeds is used as a tonic for the liver, spleen, and gall bladder. Root powder is prescribed for lack of appetite, upset stomach, and fever. Drinking the juice of the root along with carrot and celery juice is recommended for eye troubles. As Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554) noted, Europeans also knew of distilled chicory blossom water as “noble medicine for inflamed eyes with no luster.” An old folk saying adds to the respected lore: “The noble plant chicory makes eyes healthy and strong.”
Indeed, chicory’s tonic effect on the liver and gall bladder has been scientifically proven in clinical studies. The plant has also proved valuable in chelation therapy. Due to its cations (positively charged ions), it is able to bind to toxic heavy metals (cadmium, lead, mercury) and flush them out of the body, thereby preventing them from entering the blood stream. And endive lettuces are known to help lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol in the blood, thus improving cardiac health; they also have a detoxifying effect and help stabilize intestinal flora.
One last modern psychosomatic treatment can be mentioned in relation to this marvelous plant. Edward Bach (1886-1936) used chicory in his Bach Flower Remedies. With a mind to sparing a sufferer from self-pity, he prescribed a chicory flower essence for personalities that are possessive and clinging or who crave love, compassion, and attention. (This kind of personality, by the way, often suffers from digestive and intestinal problems.) As such, the chicory flower essence helps such personalities learn selfless love, the love for the higher self.
CULTIVATION: Witloof chicory (white or Belgian endive), which has an unusual and delightful flavor, makes a delicious salad. Sow seeds outdoors in late spring. In the fall, very carefully dig out the taproots. Trim their lush green tops and add them to your compost pile, which will welcome the nitrogen of the leaves. Trim the roots to be six to eight inches long. To grow shoots, pack the roots, root end down, in boxes or metal pails. Fill in the space between the roots with one of the following, noted in preferred order: sand, loose sandy soil, soil with good humus, or peat. Top with about ten inches (twenty-five centimeters) of sand, and store at about 60 °F (15 °C). The roots will produce large, tender white sprouts, which have an unusual and delightful flavor; they can be harvested as soon as they come up. When growing varieties used as a coffee substitute, dig the hard roots before the last hard frost. (LB)
SOIL: Any deeply prepared, reasonably fertile, loose garden soil is fine for chicory.
Autumn Salad ✵ 4 SERVINGS
SALAD: 4 chicory lettuces, such as endive ✵ 1 apple, cubed ✵ ½ cup walnuts (115 grams) ✵ 1 small onion or 3 green onions, chopped ✵ ½ cup (115 grams) cheddar or Feta cheese, cubed ✵ 2 medium carrots, sliced or grated ✵ DRESSING: ⅓ cup (80 milliliters) oil ✵ 2 tablespoons vinegar ✵ sea salt ✵ pepper ✵ ¼ cup (60 grams) plain yogurt or cream (optional)
Mix all the salad ingredients in a serving bowl. Mix all dressing ingredients until combined. Toss the salad with the dressing.
TIP: To reduce the bitterness of chicory, you can first gently—but only briefly—sauté the chicory lettuces before mixing with the other ingredients.