When I first started harvesting wild food, my main issue was finding the stuff.  I usually either didn’t know what the plant was, or even more often where to find it.  When I first started reading about chicory tea, all the photos were of the root and I had no notion of what the plant looked like above ground!  If you live in the Eastern US, you’ve almost certainly seen chicory (Cichorium intybus) before, even if you didn’t realize.  

From early summer through fall the gangly flower stems of chicory plants hoist their little blue-purple flowers high along the sides of roads all over the East.  At the base of the plant, near the soil, they have long leaves that look a bit like dandelion leaves, sort of like a long oval with irregular teeth. They grow like weeds and are considered invasive in some states.  Chicory root tea is a great first foray into wild food harvesting because the plants are so numerous and they’re rarely ever planted on purpose by someone. That being said, I’d still recommend keeping in mind the rule of thumb for harvesting wild plants which is to leave 2/3s of each stand, only harvesting about 1/3.

Once you’ve located a chicory plant, dig or pull out the root.  It’s a deep tap root so it might help to have a shovel, but you don’t need one if you grasp near the base of the plant and pull straight up.  If the root snaps off in the soil you’re probably not getting it out, move on to the next one. You’re going to use a ratio of about a tablespoon of root for every six ounces of water so harvest however much you think you’ll need, keeping in mind the rule of thumb for harvesting wild plants and not taking more than ⅓ of the plants in any given spot.

Bring the roots home, cut off the vegetative parts of the plant and compost them.  Rinse all the soil off the roots and either grind them or, if like me you don’t have a grinder than can handle that, just chop them into tiny pieces with a knife.  The smaller the pieces the better, grinding is ideal. Roasting the root is what brings out the nutty flavor so throw those pieces in the oven for like an hour and a half at 350 F, or until the root looks nice and dark.

After the root is in tiny pieces or ground up and roasted, all that’s left is steeping it.  You can throw it in a drip coffee maker, boil it in a teabag, brew it in a french press, whatever.  I do a little over a tablespoon of root per 6 oz of water with chopped roots, but you can figure out how strong you like it.  You’ll generally need less root the smaller the pieces of root are. I usually steep for 5-10 minutes but, again, brew it to taste.  The beverage is VERY BITTER on it’s own, so you may want to mix it with sugar or something.

Harvesting wild foods may not be a revolutionary tactic on its own, but I like that it reminds me that all my food comes ultimately from Earth, not from a grocery store.  It reminds me that our health depends on the health of Earth and whatever befalls her will befall all of us. I hope you enjoy this recipe and that it can give you the same feeling of peace and connection it brings me.

Written by Nathaniel Owen. To learn more about Heart of the Valley DSA, visit their website & follow them on Twitter.