The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
June 12, 2012
Do its blue blossoms point to green fuel?
Anyone hitting the highway on a June morning is bound to see the sky-blue blossoms of chicory flanking the roadways. Travelers departing in the afternoon, however, may miss out on the "blue daisies," as increasingly bright sunlight can close the flowers.
Each flower opens only once, but a chicory stem may sport numerous buds, each at a different stage of development, so chicory will continue to bloom throughout the summer.
A European native, chicory is a tough perennial that thrives on the sunny, well-drained soils of pastures and highway shoulders. The plant relies on a deep taproot to hold reserves of carbohydrates for next year's growth.
Most parts of the plant are edible, although people should avoid harvesting plants from potentially polluted roadsides. Slightly bitter flowers enliven salads. Leaves, high in Vitamin C and folic acid, are best eaten raw before the plant flowers; parboiling them in summer removes some of their bitterness.
The taproot, cooked like a parsnip or roasted for use as a coffee substitute, stores energy in the form of inulin, a carbohydrate safe for diabetics. Unlike starches, inulin can't be broken down by human enzymes, but it does stimulate gut bacteria, promoting healthy bowels. Inulin also increases calcium absorption and lowers blood cholesterol.
Besides being healthful for humans, chicory could prove to be good for the atmosphere. Japanese researchers have demonstrated that two fungi used in tandem can quickly turn inulin into ethanol, a process that one day may yield enough carbon-neutral biofuel to power many a summer road trip.
Rapid fermentation of chicory inulin
ETHANOL CONCENTRATION in inulin solution inoculated with fungi
Sources: Plants for a Future, Louis Bonduelle Foundation, Mayo Clinic, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, USDA, Argonne National Laboratory, Ohio State University
Two fungi, Aspergillus niger 817 and Saccharomyces cerevisiae 1200, added to a lukewarm broth of chicory inulin and water, convert almost all of the inulin into ethanol within three days. The 42-proof mixture (21% ethanol) can be distilled into fuel.