Monday, June 13, 2011

A weed only by name: Part II

First off I'd like thank all of you who came out for the author's event at the Headquarters Library,  it was very interesting talking with all of you and you made the event a success.

Today we have part two of the 'A weed only by name' series, and the two plants  being covered are Chicory and Dandelions. Both of these perennial herbs get a lot of bad press mostly on the part of the producers of chemical herbicides*. But little attention is given to the uses for and advantages of cultivated varieties of these rather well-adapted herbs. Before we get into the raw details of both plants here is a verticulture fact.
Did you know that the average tomato grown in soil needs about five gallons of soil in order to have adequate root space?  For full size indeterminate tomatoes a 15" pot or a 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom is the bare minimum for optimal yields. Translated to a garden bed situation this is an area of about 1.5 cubic feet of loosened and preferably enriched soil. We tend to think of tomatoes as a upright vegetable like eggplant or peppers but the truth is they are one of the few true vines botanically. Every portion of the stem can root if mature, and in late season you can clone your tomatoes by taking 5 inch stem cuttings and rooting them in water. 

Chicorum intybus - Chicory

Without the tell tale flower stalk chicory is 
often hard to distinguish from wild dandelion.

Chicory is not a new herb in fact anthropological evidence indicates it was cultivated as an agricultural crop at least as far back as ancient Egypt. In more modern times Chicory played a important role in the war effort of the Confederacy as Union naval blockades cut off shipments of real coffee to southern ports.  During World War Two, coffee was needed for American troops at the battle front so chicory again became critical and was the most available coffee on the market. To this day in the south east Luzianne coffee still produces chicory-coffee blend and this may become more important with rising fuel costs.
Another side to this common perennial is that it has long-standing medicinal and chemical value that simply does not get the public attention it deserves. Firstly, Chicory is related to tansy and artemesia both of which are reputed for their ability to expel worms and bears toxicity parasites and chicory too is capable of the same. Chicory root contains a compound called Inulin, which is a source of soluble dietary fiber and it's base compounds can be converted to both glucose and fructose. Both fructose and glucose are easier on the body then sucrose. Further more; some brewers have used roasted chicory root to add flavor to their stouts which in turn may raise the nutritional value of said stout.
Biologically Endive and Radicchio are both related to Chicory with the former being C. endiva and the latter being a cultivated and blanched type of Chicory.  As far as cultivation goes, chicory is absolutely undemanding,  requiring decent soil with good drainage and preferably modest amounts of moisture and organic matter. Chicory is at it's best when you stack the deck however, if you provide excellent soil with good drainage a decent mulch and regular water you can expect rapid growth possible flowering the first year and a shorter time between sowing and harvest.  If you ever wondered what chicory looked like all you need do is drive down a interstate. If the plant growing through the cracks in the cement divider has sky blue flowers on wispy dark green stems it's probably chicory.  The fact is even grown as an ornamental chicory has attractive flowers is well-behaved and if you want to try it out you can order it from Richter's Herbs.

Taraxicum officinale - Dandelion

As the picture attests there is great variety in the 
leaves of dandelion even the cultivated types.

Despite the bad rap given to dandelions by the Herbicide industry these perennial herbs are supremely adapted to surviving where little else can. A dandelion's taproot  can reach down more then a foot to find nutrient and to anchor the plant. It is thought by some that the legend of the hydra in mythology actually is derived from the dandelion's ability to recover from being top cut and that partially split or cut dandelion tap roots will often form multiple growing points and thus more 'heads'. Few realize that dandelions are an important and easily maintained source of nectar and pollen for  Bees of all types. Additionally a well maintained stand of Dandelions can produce ample greens and flowers for varied culinary recipes.  A dandelion's tap root when mature can be cleaned dried and roasted to make a coffee substitute. The numerous flowers can be used to make Dandelion wine or beer. Young dandelion leaves can be used in salads and resemble mesclun mix salad greens in flavor but are a bit more nutritious. According to the USDA, raw dandelion greens  an exceptionally high vitamin K (741%) and a particularly high vitamin C (58%) content as well as quite a bit of beta-carotene (54%) and vitamin A (56%) equivalents. Also it is worthwhile to note that dandelion greens are a reasonable source of Iron (25%), vitamin E (23%) and all this nutrient can be had in a small 3.5 ounce serving which as far as leaf greens go is rather efficient.
As for caring for your dandelions they are largely care free, you can buy dandelion seed from Richter's herbs and start them in jiffy 7 peat pellets just like any other garden plant. Given that dandelions are so well adapted to all but the hottest and driest or wettest sites you can actually get away with planting your dandelions in shade as much as full southern sun.  The trick to cultivating your dandelions for best results is to stack the proverbial deck. Just because dandelions have a taproot that can plow through poor soil doesn't mean they will necessarily  be the best they can be. What you want to do is provide or top-dress the planting site with a few inches of compost or high quality topsoil then put down a layer of mulch. Fertilization isn't necessary but may help.  If your dandelions are really happy you can expect possible flowers late in the first year. Otherwise it may take two or three years to get those cheery yellow disk flowers. Dandelions are largely pest free but may get aphids in a greenhouse situation, additionally Dandelions seem not to be competitive, a few can be clustered with little or no problems provided the soil is really good.

There is just one last thing to mention regarding chicory and dandelions, a mini-garden quiz.

What do Dandelions, Chicory, Lettuce, Endive, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Sunflower, Tansy, Feverfew, Zinnia, Santolina, Artemesia, Tarragon, Marigolds, Chrysanthemums, Pyrethrum, Asters and Cosmos all have in common?

Answer: All of these plants belong to the Aster Family commonly called Asteraceae or in older publications Compositae or the 'Disk-Flower' family. Asters are a critical nectar and pollen source for all species of moths, butterflies, bees, wasps, and even some types of ant.

*We mean you Ortho, You... Are... On... Notice!

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