Sandy’s Garden ... Succory

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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A few weeks ago, I recorded in this column that, on a recent damp morning, I was casually browsing The GARD’NER’S KALENDAR.

Part of the Appendix to John Reid’s fascinating book, The SCOTS GARD’NER, first published in Edinburgh in 1685. And there, under November, I came across this entry: “Garden Dishes and drinks in season. Cabbage, Cole-flower, Onions, Leeks, Shallots etc., Blanched Sellery, Succory, Pickled Asparagus, Purslain etc., Fresh Parsneeps, Skirrets, Potatoes, Carrots, Parsneeps, Beet-raye, Scorzenera, parsly and fennell roots.” (I have kept the original spellings and capital letters.) And now, as I promised, I am directing my attention to John Reid’s list for a second time to look at succory.

Succory is a common wild flower in England (though not in Scotland) which carries bright blue flowers … occasionally these are white or pale pink … and has the intriguing characteristic of turning its flowers towards the sun as that star makes its way across the sky in the course of the day. A perennial plant, Cichorium intybus … to give it its proper botanical name … is a member of same plant family as the dandelion. It grows quickly, reaching a height of 1.5m with a spread of 0.5m – say 5 feet by 1 foot 6 inches in old money, so it’s a fair size. In flower between July and October, is self-fertile and is pollinated by bees and other insects. The seed ripen between the end of August and the end of October; and succory prefers well-drained soil, though it’s not fussy whether that soil is light or heavy, acid or alkaline. It does, however, need plenty of sunshine and will not thrive in shady places.

Its botanical name Cichorium intybus hints very strongly at the name by which we call this plant – chicory. The generic name Cichorium comes from the plant’s Arabic name, while the specific name intybus is derived from the Egyptian word for January, which the Egyptians considered to be the best month during which to eat chicory. Although chicory has been cultivated in continental Europe for millennia as a salad plant and a vegetable as well as for fodder for grazing livestock and for its roots, it is said that it has never been widely cultivated in the British Isles although Reid’s inclusion of succory in his list suggests that it was well-known gardens in central Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century.

Reid presumably advocated growing succory for its salad leaves and roots which, baked and ground to a powder, are used as a coffee substitute and additive. People of my generation will remember the once very popular Camp Coffee … which is still marketed by Schwartz … and is, according to Wikipedia, “A Scottish food product, which began production in 1876 by Paterson & Sons Ltd. in a plant on Charlotte Street, Glasgow. A brown liquid which consists of water, sugar, 4% caffeine-free coffee essence, and 26% chicory essence, it is generally used as a substitute for coffee, but it is commonly found on baking aisles in supermarkets as it is also used as an ingredient in coffee cake and other confectionery.” The chicory adds a bitterish taste and a dark colour.

Herbalists of yesteryear recommended using bruised chicory leaves as a poultice for swellings, inflammations and inflamed eyes; and it was also claimed that a decoction of the root was useful to treat jaundice, liver enlargements, gout and rheumatic complaints – but, as ever, I am neither endorsing these claims nor advocating that any reader experiment with them. One claim by Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal, first published in 1653, is that chicory is good for the treatment of “swoonings and passions of the heart,” a somewhat unexpected virtue in a plant whose syrup was said to be an excellent laxative for children!