Chicory, a Belgian gem saved from the waters by the KU Leuven
Until the 1970s, chicory was grown in the ground, generally by growers on their knees. Today, it has become hydroponic, making it much easier to cultivate. Unfortunately, this has also meant that hundreds of varieties of chicory are no longer grown. But the KU Leuven wants to do something about this, and is working to preserve this cultural heritage.
"This is our last chance to preserve chicory in all its diversity", explains Professor Bram Van de Poelde of the KU Leuven. Thanks to funding from the Province of Flemish Brabant, Professor Van de Poelde has recently set up a seed bank at his university, in the hope of gathering at least 200 varieties for open ground, and more than 1,000 for hydroculture.
Along with his team, he also intends to scour the Flemish countryside with the task of rummaging through the barns and attics of former "chiconniers" (chicory growers) and unearthing precious chicory seeds which have been abandoned for decades in old biscuit tins or wrapped in newspapers. "The chicory library is a wonderful project. It appeals to our sense of national pride. We want to preserve the richness of Belgian chicory", enthuses Professor Van de Poelde.
This library also has scientific and economic objectives. By mapping the properties of plants and their genomes, it is possible to study the genetic diversity of chicory. This knowledge is crucial in finding solutions to diseases affecting this vegetable, and reducing yield losses. "The DNA of ancient chicory varieties may help", explains Professor Van de Poelde. "We are looking for as many grains of chicory as possible. Do you have a bag somewhere? Do you know any retired chicory growers?", he asks us optimistically.