Common names are always confusing. Hence, Carl Linnaeus devised the system of binomial nomenclature in the 1700's to assign a particular name to a plant species. For example, several plant species have been commonly called dandelion through the ages. This has led to a common misconception that dandelion seed currently listed in catalogues for producing salad greens is the common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Although these dandelion greens look similar, the seed offered in catalogs is actually from Cichorium intybus plants. To avoid confusion, C. intybus greens are sometimes called Italian dandelion (Figure 1). Italian dandelion belongs to the chicory tribe of plants. In Missouri, C. intybus is the blue-flowered plant found along roadsides during summer that is commonly known as chicory (Figure 2).
Italian dandelion varieties include Clio, Catalogna Special, Italiko Red, Garnet Stem, etc. These varieties are grown under cool temperatures and require about 28 to 56 days to produce leaves or greens of sufficient size for harvest. These greens are prized for their bitter flavor and are used in salads, soups, and stews. When plants start to bolt (begin producing a flowering "stem"), their leaves are considered too bitter to harvest as salad greens.
In ancient times, Cichorium intybus was used as a potherb and salad in Egypt and Europe. Pliny, a Roman naturalist, also described it many uses as a liniment to treat abscesses and as a cure for jaundice. Herbalists of the Middle Ages also used chicory to treat multiple ailments. By the 1620's, C. intybus roots were used as an additive or substitute for coffee. During the 1800's, chicory coffee was a common beverage in France and its territories.Â In the U.S., chicory beverages were widely available in Louisiana. Today, chicory coffee is a culinary tradition in New Orleans. Also, when coffee prices soared to $3.19 per pound in 1977, millions of pounds of chicory roots were imported into the United States and chicory coffee was broadly distributed in supermarkets.
Currently, chicory used with coffee is grown in Nebraska, as well as France, South Africa, etc. In production areas, roots of plants are mechanically dug from the field in the fall when the plants contain around 60 percent inulin (a type of carbohydrate). Roots are chopped, kiln-dried, and roasted. During roasting, some of the inulin is converted into fructose, resulting in caramelized and bitter flavors. Ground chicory is then packaged for sale.
Regardless of the name, you can enjoy munching on Italian dandelion greens in salad mixes or sip chicory coffee derived from C. intybus roots year-round.
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REVISED: February 21, 2017