The succory, or wild chicory (Cichorium intybus), grown in the kitchen bed in Bonnefont Garden blooms a deep sky-blue in the morning, fading to a pale blue by the end of the day. Photograph by Barbara Bell.
Two species of chicory are flourishing in the kitchen bed in Bonnefont Garden: Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia. The many deep-blue flowers that open for a day are a glorious sight in the morning sun, although the color fades in the heat and light of the afternoon.
The Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants notes that C. endivia is usually annual or biennial, while C. intybus is perennial. Biennial plants produce a basal rosette of leaves in their first year and flower in their second, dying after they have set the seed that will give rise to new plants. Sometimes the distinction between a biennial and a short-lived perennial is not hard and fast, and a typically biennial plant may in fact persist beyond its second year; this is the case with our C. endivia.
Both chicories flower at the same time and are virtually indistinguishable. In fact, the two are often confused. Despite their very close resemblance to one another, they are botanically distinct species. Both are edible plants with long histories, but they are used in different ways. I am indebted to the food historian Alan Davidson’s scrupulous distinctions between the two species and their forms in The Oxford Companion to Food (1999) in my attempt to disentangle their histories and distinguish the two.
The bitter leaves of C. intybus, the common wild chicory or succory, were gathered in antiquity and the Middle Ages as a salad herb. From the sixteenth century onward, improved forms of the wild plant with larger and milder-tasting leaves were developed and cultivated, and C. intybus is now grown both for its foliage and for its root; the green-leaved varieties are known as sugarloaf, and the red-leaved varieties as radicchio. The blanched leaves of the varieties known as witloof (whiteleaf), or French or Belgian endive, are produced by digging up the plant in the autumn, removing all the foliage, and storing it in a dark cellar where it is forced to produce small white leaves. This practice dates from the nineteenth century and was developed in France. There is now a bewildering variety of broad- and narrow-leaved, curly and non-curly leaved, heading, non-heading, and semi-heading types of chicory, all of which have been developed from the wild form of C. intybus.
When coffee became a fashionable drink in the eighteenth century, Europeans experimented with many potential substitutes for the exotic and expensive coffee berries, including grains, acorns, and the roasted roots of dandelion and chicory. Large-rooted forms of the wild chicory emerged as the most palatable option and were cultivated for the purpose. Although once considered an adulterant, many people—especially in France, Spain, and the southern United States—have come to prefer the taste of coffee that has an admixture of chicory.
The names endive, escarole, and chicory are used interchangeably for the leaves of C. endivia, which was eaten by the ancient Egyptians—although in that case we don’t know whether it was cultivated or gathered from the wild. We do know that the Greeks and Romans grew C. endivia in gardens and, although they ate both species, preferred it to the wild C. intybus.