Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Defining a plant as a "weed" really depends on your point of view. Take the common roadside plant chicory (Cichorium intybus) that seems to be everywhere this time of year. This perennial plant seems to go unnoticed until its bright blue flowers appear each summer, each individual flower only lasting a single day. I think of it as one of those plants that thrives on mistreatment, preferring to grow in gravel-filled soil along roads or in cracks of sidewalks rather than more fertile surroundings.
My husband, who is slowly acquiring the gardening bug, recently noticed the waves of chicory blooms waving in the wind while we were driving along a country road recently. He wondered if we could plant some of the flowers in our orange and blue Illini garden at home (this is one way to feed both my plant addiction and his love of the Illini). I explained that most people considered chicory a weed and really didn't want to plant any at home, although some people used it as a coffee substitute. His response was "Really? I always thought chicory was a wood since it rhymes with hickory." Like I said, my husband is slowly acquiring the gardening bug. He is an expert on many subjects, but has some room to improve where plants are concerned.
Was the chicory used for a coffee substitute really the same chicory growing along roadsides and vacant lots? A little research revealed that yes, this is the case. Technically speaking, the chicory grown specifically as a coffee substitute is the subspecies Sativum. But the history of chicory begins long before it was ever consumed along with or in the place of coffee.
The ancient Egyptians cultivated chicory as long as 5000 years ago as a medicinal plant. Greeks and Romans used it as a salad green, calling it the 'Friend of the Liver,' believing it stimulated and promoted health of the liver. By the early 17th century chicory was cultivated not for human consumption, but for animal forage, since the plant tended to be tough and bitter, particularly the large taproot. The Belgians rekindled interest in chicory as a human food source. They discovered that the plants were delicious if they were eaten young, and grown in the dark. This pale version of chicory lacked the bitterness of full grown relatives. While Cichorium intybus could be used to produce the food crop, so could Cichorium endivia, which is more widely used today as the source of the vegetable sold as Belgian endive.
No one really knows who decided to use chicory as a coffee substitute. There is some evidence in colonial America writings that wild chicory root was roasted and used as coffee substitute, but the use of chicory root on a more widespread scale is credited to Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1808 he began the 'Continental Blockade' that blocked the import of coffee into France. Desperate for their morning brew, the French turned to roasted chicory root to extend what coffee they had. They found that they actually preferred the sweeter, richer taste of the coffee-chicory blend, and continued to make coffee this way even when coffee was made available again. The sweet flavor of roasted chicory root is due to the conversion of the storage starch inulin into fructose (fruit sugars) during the roasting process.
This preference for coffee blended with chicory extended into territories where the French settled in the New World. Many French settlers' tastes eventually drifted back to plain coffee, but in places like New Orleans, coffee with chicory continues to be the preferred beverage.
Coffee with chicory was widely used in the U.S. during World War II when coffee shipments were disrupted. It is regaining popularity as a coffee additive today because of the sweet roasted flavor it imparts to coffee, plus it is naturally caffeine-free.
The chicory we find growing wild everywhere this time of year is descended from a cultivated European variety originally grown as for animal feed. While our wild version probably could be used in coffee, the subspecies Sativum has been selected for higher levels of inulin to increase the sweetness in the roasted root.
Chicory is a great example of how one man's weed is another man's valued crop. But I am also reminded of my college professor Dr. Larry Kamin's philosophy: "There are no weeds, only opportunistic plants". Chicory certainly spotted an opportunity along America's roadsides and seized it.