Chickory: the stubborn plant of summer


Light blue chickory flowers are one of the sure signs of late summer. The tough-stemmed flower pops up along roadways, the edges of trails and spread through uncut fields. Anyone who has pulled on the chickory plant knows it won’t give up its ground very easily. And it doesn’t mind the dry, hard ground that we get in July and August here.

Chickory is sometimes called cornflower or blue sailors. It’s a European plant that took hold in North America and hasn’t let go. Some people consider it an invasive plant, but folks here recognize it as one of the flowers of summer that bloom after other colors have disappeared from the fields in the drier days of the season.

It’s said that the West Virginia city of Bluefield was named after the plant, because there were chickory farms planted in that part of the state. Chickory Square is part of Bluefield’s downtown area.

Besides sporting a light blue bloom, chickory has been a staple of food and drink in tough times. Young chickory leaves can be eaten as a salad green. But the plant is best known for having been used as coffee substitute or additive when coffee beans were in short supply.

The root of the woody plant can be dried and ground and used in place of coffee beans, or added to stretch coffee grounds further.

Some historians say colonial Americans used the root of the wild chickory plant to make a hot drink. In Europe,  the root was added to the small amount of coffee available in France during Napoleaon’s Continental Blockade in 1808.

Soldiers on the battlefield also turned to the common plant for its roots when coffee wasn’t available to them.

The root must be roasted before being ground, and cultivated species of chickory were preferred to the wild because they were sweeter-tasting and less bitter.

Chickory coffee is still a tradition in some parts of the world, including in New Orleans. The French influence there persists, and the drink is a local preference, often served as a café au lait — with hot milk.