We were all busy getting the garden ready for two lots of judges this month. Firstly, we were to be judged for North West In Bloom in the category It’s Your Neighbourhood (IYN), and later we’d be inspected in a separate visit by the judges for Britain in Bloom. Lawns were cut…
… hedges were trimmed…
… paths swept…
… and borders tidied. ‘Tidying’ is always a difficult judgement call, as there are no such things as weeds in our garden, only medicinal plants that sometimes try to take over where not intended. We were quite pleased with how everything has turned out, and hoped that the judges would be too!
The first judging was on 9thJuly, and it seemed to go very well. Particularly attractive on the day were our wild flower meadow…
….and the border of medicinal plants.
One of our favourite, and most dramatic, herbs is Chicory (Cichorium intybus), whose beautiful blue flowers start to appear in mid-July – but you need to get there in the morning to see them at their best. By lunch time the flowers start to fade and close, although the tall branching flower spikes have plenty more to come, and last throughout the summer. [See below for more about Chicory]
There don’t seem to have been so many bees about this year, and hardly any butterflies, which is a bit worrying, but one bee, at least, found our Meadowsweet.
Meadowsweet has been known for its health benefits since ancient times. In 1830, German scientists discovered it was a source of salicylic acid, and named the chemical Spirsäure after the plant’s Latin name, Spiraea. In 1893, another German chemist managed to make a synthetic version of the chemical, which they named AcetylSpirsäure, and this was eventually marketed as Aspirin. People who love words as well as plants probably know that ‘salicylic’ itself comes from a plant name: Salix, the Latin for Willow. Willow, known for thousands of years as a medicinal plant, was previously a common source of the same chemical.
The Britain in Bloom judges were due on Thursday 25thJuly and, as you all know by now, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year. The judges arrived at 11:30, which we thought would be in good time to see the Chicory flowers, but they had already had enough of the heat, and folded up! At least we had managed to take a picture for ourselves earlier in the day, and our new Passionflower put in an appearance for the judges instead.
Meanwhile, at the Bath House itself, this month has also seen much activity. The sight of volunteer Nick up a ladder has been a rare one of late as he has concentrated on groundwork for our new utilities building, installation of seats and arches in the Physic Garden and the completion of a wonderfully restored flight of ten stone steps leading down from the Bath House. But we had realised that the building itself deserved some TLC so Nick, ably assisted by Andy and David, has repaired and weather proofed the two main sash windows before painting them in an attractive pale sage finish.
Our three wooden doors also benefitted from a clean, gentle rub down and a coating of linseed oil. Some oak strips fitted round the edges top door were also needed to seal off some surprisingly wide gaps. Our beautiful listed building has now had a good face lift and looks all the better for it. A check of the gutters and slate roof will complete its “annual service”.
Chicory Cichorium intybus
Chicory is native across Britain, Europe and Asia, but is often grown in the UK as a garden annual or perennial for its beautiful blue flowers that bloom throughout the summer season. It can also be found as a wild flower in the UK in rough grassy areas, roadside and railway verges and wasteland. Sometimes known in the UK as Succory, it has many other common names in the USA including blue daisy and blue dandelion.
In the garden, as well as being decorative it also attracts bees and other useful insects, being on the RHS list of Plants for Pollinators. The blooms open in sunlight but close in wet weather; and as well as the brilliant sky blue it is also seen in white or pink forms.
Myth and Magic
Chicory was reputed to have the power to confer invisibility, and it was said you could open a locked door simply by placing a branch of chicory against the lock. Culpeper, who knew the plant as Succory, suggested its efficacy in a wide range of ailments, including ‘hot stomach’, ‘swoonings’, and ‘passions of the heart’.
Its habit of closing petals in dull weather led the botanist Linnaeus to include it in his Floral Clock. His clock was based on his observations of the time of day when individual plants opened, and chicory was positioned at 4-5am. It was an idea that appealed to many leading gardeners at the time, who tried it out with varying degrees of success. Linnaeus was a serious 18thcentury scientist, and his system of plant classification, although modified, still influences botany and horticulture today; but we now appreciate that climate, altitude and latitude, not to mention soil type, are all significant factors in plant growth so we’ll stick to our digital watches for now…
Chicory has been known in folk medicine since the time of the Pharaohs, and is still used in herbal medicinal preparations in many countries around the world. The following examples demonstrate the wide range of uses for different parts of the plant:
– South Africa: a ‘tea’ made from the plant is recommended for jaundice, and chicory syrup is given as a tonic to children;
– Turkey: the leaves are made into a skin ointment to reduce inflammation;
– Italy: a decoction of the leaves is prescribed for high blood pressure;
– Morocco: a decoction of the whole plant is given in cases of kidney disorder;
– Poland: a tea made from the roots is prescribed for digestive complaints.
Chicory was discovered in the 1970s to contain up to 40% inulin, and is therefore safe for diabetics as it has a negligible effect on blood sugar. It is now grown commercially to produce inulin.
You will usually find Chicory (Cichorium endivia, a species related to the native flower) in the vegetable or salad aisles as a tight bunch of pale leaves (rather like a mini Cos or Romaine lettuce), or in ready-bags of mixed salad leaves. Eaten raw in salads, it has a bitter tang that’s not to everyone’s taste, though the fresher it is the milder the bitterness. Chicory in this form is ‘forced’ – grown quickly in darkness – and the leaves are harvested after only a few weeks. Another name to look out for in those salad bags is radicchio, referring to a red-veined variety of the same plant.
Like other green leafy vegetables such as leeks, lettuce, and celery, chicory can also be cooked: recipes often suggest braising or roasting.
Confusingly, in much of Europe the vegetable is actually known as endive – a name that in Britain usually refers to a variety of curly lettuce!
Older people in the UK may associate chicory with a certain brand of liquid ‘instant coffee’ that was actually made mostly with roasted chicory root, baked and ground, and full of sugar to disguise the bitterness. It’s still available, and is also useful as an easy ‘coffee flavouring’ in classics like coffee and walnut cake. You can also buy powder-type instant coffee drinks containing chicory in varying proportions to actual coffee beans.
Chicory drinks are also available without any coffee addition: they are said to taste like coffee but slightly woody and nutty. As this type of drink contains less caffeine than coffee, it’s a possible alternative for those who are trying to reduce their caffeine intake.
Acknowledgements Thanks to the following for much of the information above