If You’ve Never Tried Growing Radicchio, Now Is the Time

This cultivated form of chicory is having a moment. Here’s what you need to know before you plant it.

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Radicchio: Yes, it’s a thing at the moment. It has its own newly formed association, an annual festival and even a poster and lapel pin for sale on Etsy. Yet many American gardeners have never tried growing this cultivated form of chicory.

Right about now is the time to get seeds and add it to the list of vegetables to sow around the solstice — as you would broccoli or cabbage — for fall-into-winter harvests, radicchio’s prime time.

Why has radicchio been long overlooked by gardeners in this country? Well, it has some minor image issues. Even the passionate cheering squad of organic farmers in the Pacific Northwest who promote it as “that rad vegetable” (get it?) and otherwise effuse about its photogenic qualities and social-media potential will concede that.

A packet of seed of some varieties can be more expensive (or contain fewer seeds) than those of other leafy vegetables. It takes some experimentation to figure out which among the many very-different-looking types matches your location, and when precisely to sow it for the best results. And its traditional Italian names can make the varieties hard to keep straight.

Most of all, though, it’s radicchio’s reputation for bitterness — not a taste that the American palate traditionally celebrates — that is probably the biggest point of hesitation for growers, and eaters.

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Red-cabbage look-alikes known as Rosso di Chioggia are named for the city in Italy from which they hail. They are the most familiar radicchios, but hardly the only kind.Credit…Smarties.Bio

Most of us first encountered radicchio as the colorful element in a bagged baby-salad mix, which may be responsible for that last bit. But in radicchio’s northern Italian homeland, those deep-red varieties are often consumed cooked, not raw; milder-flavored ones go into the salad bowl.

Now, there are more varieties — including those developed for organic farmers and gardeners — being bred not just for diversity of flavor and color, but days to maturity, so they can be planted in a range of climate zones.

“Growing radicchio is not more difficult than growing lettuce,” said Brian Campbell, of Uprising Seeds, in Bellingham, Wash. “Except the part about getting the timing right.”

Mr. Campbell’s seed farm has just begun offering certified organic seed for 15 radicchio varieties with a range of days to maturity, working in partnership with the Italian seed-breeding company Smarties.Bio and Culinary Breeding Network, founded by Lane Selman, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, to build communities of plant breeders, farmers, chefs and other food stakeholders, with the goal of improving vegetable quality. The collaboration, called the Gusto Italiano Project, seeks to help establish radicchio as an anchor of North America’s fall and winter produce season.

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Variegato di Castelfranco radicchios like Lentiggini have more open, almost tulip-shaped, heads that are buttery-yellow with red flecks when they mature.Credit…Uprising Seeds

A Dizzying Diversity

Smarties.Bio is in Chioggia, Italy, “the heart of radicchio’s motherland in the Veneto region,” Mr. Campbell said — and the place for which the red-cabbage-look-alike radicchios known as Rosso di Chioggia are named. When most people think of radicchio, that’s the kind they picture, often shredded into salad mixes. But it’s hardly the only kind.

What we call radicchio is one of the cultivated edibles derived from wild chicory (Cichorium intybus), as is its cousin Belgian endive. Escarole and frisee are also chicories, but from the species C. endivia.

In the same way that there are types of lettuce — loose-leaf, butterhead, Romaine, crisphead — and a roster of named varieties within each type, radicchios also fit into a range of phenotypes. There are many Rosso di Chioggia varieties, and other variously shaped radicchio in that deep, reddish-purple color, including Rosso di Verona types (often described as egg-shaped), Rosso di Treviso Precoce (football-shaped) and Rosso di Treviso Tardivo (with long, slender leaves).

Variegato di Castelfranco radicchios have heads that are more open, like a lettuce, and almost tulip-shaped; they are buttery yellow with red flecks when they mature. Variegato di Lusia types develop creamy-colored leaves with red speckles that are mild and good in salad. And the list goes on.

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Variegato di Lusia types of radicchio, like Delta, develop creamy-colored leaves with red speckles that are mild and good in salad.Credit…Smarties.Bio

A Radicchio With a Hashtag

Among the most recent entries in the palette are the Rosa del Veneto types, which have caught the eye of many, including Ms. Selman, of Culinary Breeding Network, and earned a hashtag, #pinklettuce, as that’s what they look like. They are beautiful, yes, but also very slow to mature, at about 120 days. In Uprising’s fields, they don’t color up until December or later.

It was the hope of seeing her first pink radicchio that drew Ms. Selman to Italy in 2014. The radicchio remained elusive, but she did meet a young Italian plant breeder, Andrea Ghedina, who later founded Smarties.Bio.

On a return visit in 2020, when she organized a radicchio tour for 22 American farmers, chefs and “other radicchio advocates,” she met Mr. Ghedina again, “over an epic lunch of 15 radicchio dishes in Chioggia, of course,” she said. And a partnership was conceived.

Color, uniformity, improved yields and resistance to bolting are among Mr. Ghedina’s radicchio-breeding goals. “We’ve taken up the challenge by integrating two worlds: the knowledge of rural Italian tradition and the most modern genetic improvement techniques,” he said.

“We have been learning all along the way,” said Ms. Selman, who secured a grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture to set up an association of Pacific Northwest radicchio farmers, to continue exchange trips between Italian and American farmers, and more. The fourth annual Chicory Week will be held this fall in Portland, Ore., along with a Sagra di Radicchio, a festival inspired by Italian events celebrating regional cuisine.

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The red Rosso di Verona radicchios, including the variety Romeo, are often described as egg-shaped.Credit…Uprising Seeds

Beginner Varieties and How to Grow Them

In the northern half of the United States, the ideal time to sow radicchio in flats is from mid-June through the first third of July or thereabouts, Mr. Campbell said. Then it can be transplanted into the garden in July and early August.

But how to get started, and with which ones?

At Uprising, Mr. Campbell and his partner, Crystine Goldberg, have included radicchio in their crop rotation and sold its seed since 2007. The types he recommends for beginners: Chioggia, Verona, Treviso Precoce, Castelfranco and Lusia. Within those, you can select varieties rated for earliness — short-season ones whose descriptions say 60-ish days to maturity.

Among Veronas, for example, varieties can range from about 55 to 120 days, with days to maturity counted from the time the radicchio is transplanted into the garden. Choosing those with shorter maturity minimizes the risk of bumping into harsh weather transitions on the far end, although exposure to some cold will sweeten them.

Radicchio can be direct-sown, but Mr. Campbell recommends instead sowing it in flats about four weeks ahead of the transplant date, as summer soil can be hot, dry and hard on germination, and it’s easier to weed around transplants than it is around tiny, emerging seedlings. Space the transplants as you would full-sized lettuce, he said, maybe 10 to 12 inches apart.

Radicchio has few disease and pest issues. Voles, however, do love the big roots, and deer apparently also got the memo that radicchio is trending. The Uprising team learned that the hard way, when a quarter-acre of heads vanished in a field deer had not previously visited.

Want to conduct your own little trial, and gather location-specific insights? Try two or three early varieties, chosen from different types, and then make a couple of staggered sowings of each. Keeping notes on your first radicchio experiment will make next season even more successful.

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Rosso di Treviso Precoce radicchios, including the organic variety Regina Rossa, are roughly football-shaped.Credit…Uprising Seeds

Feeling Wild and Crazy? Try Forcing Some in the Closet

Maybe the ultimate in radicchio are varieties dug from the field and forced for winter use — similar to the way crisp gold-and-white heads of Belgian endive are produced. The process had humble, practical beginnings, as a way to provide greens in the leanest winter months.

“People are really excited to have a little science experiment going on at home,” said Mr. Campbell, who receives photos from gleeful customers of their successful off-season adventures in kitchen cabinets, crawl spaces and cellars.

To force a Treviso Tardivo, for instance — “the one that looks like a burgundy squid,” Mr. Campbell said — dig plants, roots and all starting around November, when the centers begin to develop their deep red color. Wash the roots and stand the plants in a bucket or a tub of water filled to about an inch or two below the tops of the roots. Set the tub in a dark room with a temperature of about 55 degrees; change the water weekly. Fooled into thinking it’s spring, the plants will break dormancy and produce a new flush of leaf growth, ready for harvest in a couple of weeks.

Soon you will be reciting the mantra of the converted: “Making the world a bitter place,” as the poster from Chicory Week proclaims.

Still not sold on that aspect of radicchio? To leach some of the bitterness away, soak leaves you plan to eat fresh in ice water for an hour, then combine them with creamy or sweet ingredients, like balsamic vinegar — or, better still, with the thicker, sweeter syrup of grape must called saba. Or try roasting wedges of the red varieties, which mellows their flavor — and don’t forget the salt, the fan club advises.

Cultivate a taste for radicchio, taking the bitter with the sweet, salty, sour and umami.

“When you only have five taste perceptions,” Mr. Campbell said, “you can’t just write one of them off.”

Margaret Roach is creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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