Witloof library: Seeds sought to ensure traditional chicory not lost forever

Summary

With hydro-culture replacing the better tasting soil-grown chicory in Flanders, KU Leuven researchers are making an effort to freeze seeds for the future

‘It will soon be too late’

Researchers at KU Leuven are collecting chicory seeds from across Flanders in an effort to preserve varieties produced by local growers. They are particularly interested in soil-grown chicory, or grondwitloof, which was once widely produced across the region.

Until the 1970s, almost all Belgian chicory was grondwitloof. There were some 7,000 local growers, most using varieties that they or their families had developed to suit the soil on their particular plots of land.

But growing chicory in the soil is a labour-intensive process, and it has gradually been replaced by large-scale production of chicory in water. Today there are only about 120 grondwitloof growers in Flanders, and only half of those are using their own varieties.

“If we don’t want to lose the Belgian grondwitloof, now is the time to intervene,” says Bram Van de Poel, a professor in the biosystems department at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven). “It will soon be too late.”

Chicory in the attic

So KU Leuven and the National Chicory Garden in Herent have sent a researcher on the road to take stock of the old varieties. Yannah Cornelis has been visiting chicory growers, past and present, across Flanders and collecting seeds.

These sometimes emerge from the attic, where they have been kept in paper bags or old ice cream boxes, or they can be found growing in the garden. “Somewhere in a corner, growers always have a patch of chicory flowers,” she says.

The seeds she collects are sorted, dried and then frozen for storage at KU Leuven and at Herent, just to be on the safe side. Even this is not enough to ensure their long-term viability, and every few years the seeds will have to be defrosted and replanted so that a fresh sample can be collected.

As well as preserving different varieties, the project will also help researchers explore the genetic diversity of chicory. This could lead to new varieties better able to withstand disease or other challenges, such as drought. “Something we can well imagine in this weather,” Van de Poel told VRT.

Anyone with chicory growers in their family, or even seeds in the attic, can contact the project at witloof@vlaamsbrabant.be.

Photo: Grondwitloof, or soil-grown chicory, is well known to have more flavour than its hydrofarmed counterpart
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