You probably have noticed these ubiquitous blue (chicory) and pink (crown vetch) flowers as you walk the paths in the Norristown Farm Park (NFP). Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the family Asteraceae, a very large family of plants including the aster, daisy, dandelion, sunflower, chrysanthemum and dahlia among others. It is native to Eurasia, but was transplanted to North America where it has thrived. It has a taproot and dandelion-like, 3 to 6 inch basal leaves, from which a long, flower stalk with small leaves grows. This stalk may reach 2 to 5 feet and form branches. The flowers are about 1 1/2 inches across and consist of square-tipped and fringed, blue/lavender petals. The flowers are rarely white or pink. In our region, the flowers bloom from June to October.
Chicory has been used as a medicinal and culinary herb for centuries. The leaves are bitter and used in cuisines in the Puglia and Liguria regions of Italy, Catalonia in Spain and in Turkey and Greece. Cultivated varieties include heading chicories like radicchio, loose-leaf chicorylike sugarloaf (looks like Romaine lettuce), Belgium endive or witlof (white leaf) or root chicory which is grown for cooking or roasting to make a coffee substitute. Note: the vegetable endive (frisee, curly leaf form and escarole, the broad leaf form) belongs to a different species – Cichorium endivia.
Belgium endive is grown from “forced” chicory roots. This is done by growing chicory in the garden and at harvest time trimming off the leaves, but saving the root. The root is stored at cold temperatures and put at warmer temperatures in the dark whenever you want leaves to form. The leaves are called chicons and are white. Sometimes the roots and leaves (except for the tips) are grown under the soil. Either way the leaves are not exposed to light – if they are, they become bitter.
Anyone who has been to New Orleans and visited Café du Monde may have experienced the wonderful tradition of eating beignets (square pieces of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar) accompanied by a cup of coffee and chicory. The chicory was obtained by roasting roots from root chicory and grinding them up. The roasted and ground chicory can be used as a coffee substitute or mixed with coffee. Sometimes roasted chicory is added to stout beer or to ales (witlofbier).
Chicory is also used as a forage plant. It is easily digested by ruminants and is a good substitute for oats for horses.
The pretty pink and white flower you see all over the Park is crown vetch (Coronilla varia), a member of the pea/legume family (Fabaceae). The Fabaceae_ family, like the Asteraceae family, is very large and includes clover, locust trees, mimosa, alfalfa, red bud trees, and locoweed among many others.
Crown vetch is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, northern Africa and southwest Asia. It was introduced to the United States in the 1950s for erosion control and is still used for that today along roadsides. It is also used for ornamental ground cover, cattle forage and green fertilizer (members of the pea family add nitrogen to the soil). Crown vetch tolerates dry and wet conditions, but prefers sun to full shade. It is found in open fields and disturbed areas.
Crown vetch has a strong root system (erosion control) and a spreading growth habit (good ground cover) due to rhizomes, modified stems running horizontally underground. New roots and shoots grow out of the underground stem nodes.
The leaves of crown vetch are pinnate, i.e., each leaf consists of 15 to 25 (always odd-numbered) leaflets.
The pea plant-like pink and white flowers grow in clusters at the end of long stalks. Blooming occurs from May to August. Long, narrow seed pods develop from the flowers and slender seeds are produced within the pods. Crown vetch seeds can remain viable for up to 15 years!
So on your next walk in the Park, keep a look out for crown vetch and common chicory!