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How's About That Chicory!

Hey, I’m back. How are you all, and your gardens? Wasn’t it a great summer. My partner and I bought a small, 3 and a half acre farm and have been renovating the not quite fit for a house dwelling that was on the property while starting a berry farm. Who says dreams don’t come true? So I’ve been busy and I hope you will forgive me for not writing sooner. We camped out in the strawberry patch all summer, showered from the garden hose and were generally un-plugged from May through September. Then I started school, a doctoral program in mythological studies. My interest is on agricultural mythology and how to re-culture agriculture. Things have slowed down a bit so I thought I’d say hi.

I think my last column was about water and ways to conserve it in the garden. One of the primary ways to conserve is to choose plants that are drought tolerant. The grass has been crispy dry for months now but there were/are still wild flowers that are growing and blooming their heads off despite the fact that it has been almost 6 months with absolutely no rain. The two that really stand out are chicory and a dainty little wild verbascum.

The chicory really stands out because of its beautiful blue flowers. Yeah I know it grows wild on the sides of the road common as you please but that shouldn’t prejudice you against them. I mean how many blue flowers do you know of. Breeders work night and day trying to get blue flowers and here this hardy little plant has one of the prettiest blues in all of flowerland, it’s extremely drought tolerant and is super easy to grow.

Not convinced that it deserves a place in your garden? Ok I guess I’ll have to pull out its pedigree papers. Cichorium intybus is its proper name. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had proper respect for its many medicinal uses and ate plenty of fresh chicory leaves knowing that it was good for the liver, spleen and digestive tract as well as a great purifier of the urinary tract. The slightly bitter herb was used to stimulate the appetites of the sick and infirm. It increases the flow of bile and is a mild diuretic and as such has been used to treat gout and rheumatism. Externally a poultice of boiled leaves and flowers is used to alleviate painful swelling and inflammations of the skin.

Its effect on the liver is that of a tonic which may help the liver in maintaining hormone balance thus lessening the effects of PMS. The leaves if eaten regularly as an addition to salads helps strengthen the liver and can discourage the growth of candida. Chicory also aids the body in absorbing calcium. There are chemicals in the chicory called Raftilin inulin and Raftilose oliglofructose that can’t be digested by the small intestine. So they pass on down to the large intestine where the friendly Bifudus bacteria ferment them causing an increased absorption of calcium and other minerals. This fermentation action tends to increase the acidity in the colon which hinders the growth of bad bacteria. Want more?

It was Napoleon, well more probably his cook, who discovered that roasted chicory root made a good substitute for coffee. It is still a very popular addition to coffee as well as the major component of some of the coffee substitutes on the market today. There are a couple chemicals in chicory called lactucin and lactucopicrin that are thought to counter the effects of caffeine by the sedative effect they have on the central nervous system, it’s an upper and a downer at the same time! And to think that it grows so abundantly in every field, roadside and unmowed lot. Don’t you think it deserves a little bit more respect than that?

Ok so here is how you grow it in your garden. It’s a hardy perennial and as you know will grow just about anywhere in just about any kind of conditions so throw a few seeds in the garden come April or May. You can buy seed or gather your own. Right now the plants are mostly done blooming and are setting seed. Find a plant and look for the brown seedpod, the seeds are ripe and ready if the pods are opened. Just cut a branch of pods and gently shake the seeds out over a piece of newspaper, maybe this very paper you’re reading now! Store them in some kind of airtight container, although to be honest with you I find plain old envelopes a great way to store seed. Come spring sow your seeds, cover the seeds with a half-inch or so of soil, once they have germinated thin them to stand about 12 inches apart. If you are going to transplant them do it early on as they have a very deep tap root that wont like being disturbed once it gets any kind of size. That’s all there is to it.

They look great planted with white and pink. The plant has been described as scraggly; I prefer the term airy, which is a great attribute in the garden. It means you can interplant them without regard to their height because they are airy enough, there is room enough between the branches that shorter plants can be seen through them. I think this gives a much more naturalized character to the garden. But for those of you who like things lined up according to height they can get 4 feet tall so plant accordingly.

The other plant that laughs at drought is a little verbascum, as far as I can tell it is Verbascum blattaria. It has a rosette of dark green warty leaves and a flowrerstalk that shoots 3 feet in the air. The buttery yellow flowers open form the top down and have an eye that is reddish in color. It has no medicinal uses that I know of and is not used for anything special, but the bees like it. It’s just a great little plant that blooms from early summer to late fall without needing a hint of water.

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