Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is an ornamental leafy plant with a distinctive bitter flavour. An acquired taste that is loved by some but disliked by others. There are three basic types:
Soil Type: Fertile well-drained soil.
Conditions: Best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade.
Ease of Cultivation: Non-forcing varieties are easy to grow. Forcing varieties need advanced treatment.
Type: Leafy salad vegetable.
Hardiness: Not fully hardy in the UK.
When to Sow: Late spring to midsummer.
Harvest Season: Late summer onwards. Approximate time between sowing and harvesting: 18-30 weeks.
Chicory will grow in most soils so long as they are moist but well drained. Red and green leaf forms prefer full sun.
All prefer soil conditions similar to lettuce and salad leaves. One that is open and well-drained, with good fertility and high in nitrogen. Dig over and break down to a good fine tilth and rake in a general purpose fertilizer a few weeks before sowing.
Do not sow too early or plants may bolt. Can be sown from late spring through to midsummer, but early summer is best.
Direct sow in shallow drills at a depth of 1/2in (1cm). For forcing varieties, gradually thin plants to 9in (23cm). Leave more space for the larger headed red and green leaf types, by thinning to around 12in (30cm).
Keep the crops weed free and water well in dry weather to prevent bolting.
Keep a particular watch for slugs and snails. If slugs are a problem, lay a line of sharp sand/grit around the plants to deter them or use slug traps.
Cutworms, leatherjackets and wireworms can also attack the roots. If these pests are a problem, use an appropriate insecticide that is safe for use on vegetables or grow resistant varieties in future.
The green leaf 'sugarloaf' types and the various red chicories should be ready for cutting from autumn to early winter, or throughout winter if grown on under cover in a coldframe or cool greenhouse. Harvest head forming types when they are firm to touch. The longer they are left the more bitter the flavour.
Start forcing Witloof types from late autumn to early winter. The traditional method is to dig up the plants and cut the leaves off to about 1in (25cm) above the root collar, then trim the tap root to about 8in (20cm). Replant in deep boxes of potting compost and cover to a depth of 9in (23cm), then place a lid over the box to exclude any light. Place in a warm dark place (such as a warm basement) for three or four weeks, so the fat white buds called chicons are then produced. Cut when 4-6in (10-15cm) long. Water the compost and replace the cover, this often produces smaller, secondary chicons. Discard exhausted roots after the second harvest.
Another much simpler forcing method is two use two large pots. Plant four or five roots in one pot. Then place the other pot, inverted over the top, and block off the drainage holes to exclude light.
Red varieties can also be forced to produce white and maroon leaves.
Red and green leaf types can be stored for several weeks by hanging in a frost-free shed. They also store well in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Forced chicons should not be stored for longer than necessary. Keep them in the dark until preparation time. Store-bought chicons tend to be very bitter because they have been exposed to daylight, which is an excellent reason for producing your own.
Red and green leaf chicory can be eaten raw in salads or the leaves can be sauteed or steamed.
Chicons can be boiled in lightly salted water for 10-15 minutes. Drain and serve. Traditionally chicons are dressed with cheese or tomato sauce.
Witloof is a source of Vitamin A, C, B6, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Copper and Pantothenic Acid.
Cichorium intybus, the main species, is actually a short lived perennial that can be grown in the flower garden, where it will produce exquisite blue flowers. The following salad varieties are popular in the UK:
Chicory 'Brussels Witloof' (Belgian Endive) a traditional forcing variety. Reliable, but needs forcing to keep the chicons blanched and tightly folded. Can also be grown as a standard salad green or eaten like spinach. The roots can also be ground as a coffee substitute.
Chicory 'Di Chioggia' (originating near Chioggia, Italy) is a round heading red leaf Radicchio type. Available at Thompson & Morgan.
Chicory Normato is new Dutch variety that doesn't need a soil layer when forcing. Excellent for early harvesting right up to Christmas.
Chicory 'Orchidea Rossa' (Red Chicory) is a round heading, red leaf, early cropping variety. Produces small to medium sized heads of red leaves with white ribs.
Chicory 'Palla Rossa Verona' is a round heading red leaf Radicchio type that produces compact firm heads with heart shaped leaves. Can also be used for forcing.
Chicory 'Pan di Zucchero' (Sugar Loaf) is a traditional non-forcing variety that produces upright, tight heads with green outer leaves. Ideal for salads.
Chicory 'Red Rib' (Italian Dandelion) a leafy form that produces serrated, long thin, green leaves with bright red stems and veins. Can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a sweet bitter flavour.
Chicory 'Rossa di Treviso precoce' is classic Italian, red leaf type. Ideal for autumn and early winter use, or as a salad leaf through spring and summer. Available at Thompson & Morgan.