Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory blooms, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

From Chicory to Coffee

There it was in the field: blue enchantment.

My grandmother was somewhere behind me, hidden by grasses body-tall. Her quick work was muffled by meadowlarks ground-nesting and spring-summer heat ululating, low. We were collecting teasles and milkweed pods, the natural bits she crafted into porcupines, rabbits, and little kings set before blackbird pies. Characters from nursery rhymes and her private imagination.

I turned to face the chicory flower again. A cricket chirped. I went in for the pick.

Cichorium intybus—chicory flower, blue sailors, succory, coffeeweed—is an aster native to central Europe. It spread to North Africa and the Middle East and, centuries later, to North America and Australia. It has dandelion-like leaves in rosettes close to the ground and hairy, grooved stalks up to four feet high. Sometimes the ruffled petals come in pink and white, rather than lavender and blue. They make up flowers that open and close at the same time every day and lie close to their stems.

Afraid of bees.

The flowers can be pickled, crystallized in sugar, made into wine, and frozen in ice cubes. Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Turks cook young chicory leaves. Food foragers favor C. intybus greens. So do livestock. The ancients discovered chicory’s powers to combat diabetes, worms, depression, indigestion, and headaches. Some swear that chicory essence rids cats and dogs of codependence. Chicory even ranks among the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

Since the Middle Ages, baristas have roasted chicory’s long taproot and added the grounds to coffee, especially during wars and economic downturns. In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Hill Hassal, using the long-neglected microscope, proved his suspicion that the coffee in London shops was almost universally extended with chicory (and, far worse, liver). In France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Vietnam, and Louisiana, people fell in love with chicory’s peppery taste. During a coffee shortage in Syria, I turned to tea.

That was years after I gathered my blue bouquet. I presented it proudly to Grandma. Right away, it wilted, as—I later learned—anything preciously magic would.