How to Grow Endive

By Dr. Mercola

While they look deceptively similar to lettuce, with one bite you will realize endive tastes slightly bitter. Despite there being a fair amount of confusion in terms of distinguishing endive from other members of the chicory family, it is characterized by a large rosette with narrow, curly-edged, light-green center leaves surrounded by dark-green outer leaves.

Endive’s close relatives — Belgian endive, curly endive (also known as frisée) and escarole — are names of other chicory relatives that are sometimes confused and used interchangeably with endive.

No matter which endive variety you choose, all of them are an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C and K, as well as calcium, copper, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. The bitter taste of endive results from a substance called intybin, which is thought to be a mild appetite stimulant and digestive aid. Endive also contains kaempferol, a flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables that has been shown to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.

If you enjoy stronger-tasting salad greens, I highly recommend endive, which was ranked No. 13 on a list of the top powerhouse fruits and vegetables. Here’s all you need to know to successfully grow and enjoy endive.

Endive, Belgian Endive, Escarole, Curly Endive: What’s the Difference?

Endive, which originated from Asia Minor, is a type of chicory found within the daisy (Asteraceae or Compositae) family.1 While it is closely related to lettuces, endive has both a distinctive look and taste. Other chicories are: Belgian endive, curly endive (also known as frisée), escarole and radicchio. Although endive is often described as coming in both curly and flat-leaf varieties, that is not quite true. While all of the chicories are bitter tasting, you can tell them apart according to their leaves:2

  • Belgian endive has pale yellow leaves and an elongated rocket-like shape
  • Endive features a rosette of narrow, frilly leaves
  • Escarole is characterized by a rosette of broader, flatter leaves
  • Curly endive, also known as frisée (“free-ZAY”), is frizzy and wild-looking with curly, pale green or yellowish leaves. To add more confusion, what Americans and the French refer to as frisée is called endive in the U.K.

Health Benefits of Endive

All endive varieties are an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C and K, as well as calcium, copper, iron, manganese, potassium and zinc. Endive is low in calories and fat, and has a high fiber content. A 3.5-ounce portion (100 grams) of endive, which contains just 17 calories, provides:3,4

  • 192 percent of your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin K, which is important for balanced blood coagulation
  • 72 percent of your RDA for vitamin A, which is necessary to maintain healthy mucus membranes and skin, and may help protect against lung cancer5
  • 36 percent of your RDA for folate (vitamin B9), which works together with endive’s other B vitamins — thiamin (B1), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and pyridoxine (B6) — to ensure the healthy metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins to enable you to remain energized throughout the day
  • 18 percent of your RDA for manganese, which assists in the formation of your blood-clotting factors, bones, connective tissues and sex hormones, as well as brain and nerve function

Endive contains a substance called intybin, which is not only responsible for the bitter taste of its leaves, but also is thought to be a mild appetite stimulant and digestive aid. Due to its high fiber content, when consumed in large amounts, Belgian endive can act as a diuretic and laxative. Kaempferol, a flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables, including endive, has been shown to reduce your risk of ovarian cancer.

Kaempferol naturally inhibits ovarian cancer cells. In fact, cancer cells die when they are exposed to kaempferol. It also has the ability to stop cancer from growing the new blood vessels needed to feed it — starving them through a process called apoptosis. Authors of a 2011 study6 said: “[K]aempferol induces apoptosis in ovarian cancer cells … and is a good candidate for the chemoprevention of ovarian cancers in humans.�

Scientists involved with multiyear research7,8 involving 66,940 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study noted a 40 percent reduction in ovarian cancer risk among women who had the highest kaempferol intake, compared to women with the lowest consumption.

Expert Tips on the Best Way to Grow Endive

As with any vegetable, choosing a type that grows well in your area and following recommended planting guidelines is the best way to ensure a bountiful crop. Below are some tips from gardening experts you may want to consider when planting endive:9,10,11

Companion Plants

Endive will thrive near radishes, parsnips and turnips. Do not plant them in the vicinity of pumpkins or squash.

Sowing

For an early-summer harvest, sow seeds indoors in flats eight to 10 weeks before the last expected frost in your area; after plants appear, thin to 6 inches apart. For fall crops, direct seed about 90 days before the date of the first frost. If desired, you can seed every two weeks to ensure a continuous harvest.

Plan your endive crops so they come to harvest before temperatures average higher than 85 degrees F, and keep in mind most endive varieties take 85 to 100 days to mature.

When direct seeding, water the ground thoroughly and place three seeds per inch, covering them with about one-third inch of compost, soil or sand. When seedlings appear, thin them to at least 1 foot apart. Space rows 18 to 24 inches apart. Proper spacing will prevent the plants from going to seed (also known as bolting), and developing overlapping leaves, which can cause endive to rot.

Soil

Endive thrives in well-worked, well-drained soil that retains moisture. For best results, loosen the soil and add aged compost to your garden bed before planting. Side dress with more compost at midseason. The best soil pH for endive is 5.0 to 6.8.

Sun

Endive prefers full sun, but may need shade if the weather turns hot.

Transplanting

Transplant endive seedlings into your vegetable garden when they are about 4 to 5 inches tall and there is no longer danger of frost. Space them about 1 foot apart. Place them slightly deeper in the ground than they were in the flats.

Watering

Without sufficient water, endive leaves will become tough and bitter, so plan to give them about 1 inch of water a week. For best results, water the soil thoroughly, not the plants, because wet endive has a tendency to rot.

Blanching: The Key to Beautiful Color Change and Milder Taste

About two to three weeks before your endive plants are expected to mature, you can decide if you want to blanch them. Blanching prevents sunlight from reaching the plant’s interior, slowing the production of chlorophyll, which produces the bitter taste. Blanching not only turns endive’s inner leaves a creamy yellow color, but also reduces some of its natural bitterness, affording a milder taste. Keep in mind this technique will diminish endive’s vitamin content.

To blanch endive during the final stage of its growth, use rubber bands or twine to tie the leaf tops tightly together. As an alternative, you can use a box, bucket or pot to cover the entire plant for about two to three weeks, until the color change has occurred.

Be sure to do the blanching on a dry day because wet leaves will be more prone to rotting when banded together. Also, keep in mind that once blanched, endive leaves will deteriorate rather quickly. As such, it is best to blanch only a couple of plants at a time and eat them within a day or two.

Common Varieties of Endive and Escarole

If you like slightly bitter salad greens, you have several varieties of endive from which to choose, ensuring you will find one that suits your tastes. Endive varieties (and their days to maturity) include:12,13

Frisan: outer leaves are dark green, well filled, well blanched centers (98 days)

Galia: petite variety with finely cut leaves (45-60 days)

Green Curled Ruffec: finely cut and frilly leaves (90 days)

President: hardiest in fall (80 days)

Salad King: large frame, nonbolting in warm weather (98 days)

Tosca: very fine “shoestring� leaves, narrower than other types, white blanched hearts (85 days)

Tres Fine Endive: extra finely cut, lacy leaves and easy to grow (48 days)

Harvesting Endive

Similar to lettuce, you can harvest individual endive leaves or entire plants as needed. Use a knife to cut the plants at ground level, leaving the root system intact. Doing so will encourage new growth in warm weather, giving you a steady supply of tasty salad greens. Store the greens in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. Whole endive heads will last about a week. Cut endive leaves discolor quickly so be sure to use them right away when serving cut leaves in salads and other preparations.

How to Cultivate Belgian Endive

Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus) is a totally different species from regular endive and is distinguished by its pale yellow, elongated bulb-like shape. You can either grow Belgian endive in your garden under normal conditions, or cultivate it indoors out of season for a tasty winter salad crop. To accomplish the latter, you must sow seeds outdoors in late spring in deep, loose soil.

In the fall, dig up the roots and cut off the top 2 inches of growth above the crown. Trim the roots and set the plants upright in deep pots. Add potting mix to cover the roots and then layer on 6 to 8 inches of sand. Maintain the pots in an area with a consistent temperature of 60 to 70 degrees F. Keep the sand moist. Belgian endive is ready to harvest as soon as the tips peek through the sand.

Ways to Enjoy Belgian Endive

Belgian endive is versatile — it is tasty raw and also stands up in cooked preparations. Due to its slightly bitter flavor, Belgian endive pairs well with:14

Cheeses: bleu, feta, gorgonzola and manchego

Dressings: honey, balsamic or raspberry vinaigrette

Fruits: apples, cranberries and pears

Herbs: basil and thyme

Meats: bacon, lamb, poultry and prosciutto

Nuts: pecans and walnuts

Sauces: cream-based sauces and raw, organic, grass fed butter

Other: olive oil and onions

No matter how you grow or eat it, given its many nutritional benefits, endive is a healthy salad green that is sure to be a taste sensation. Fruits & Veggies — More Matters, an initiative designed to encourage Americans to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption for health reasons, offers 10 creative ways to enjoy Belgian endive:15

Endive appetizers

Top cold Belgian endive leaves with sliced grapes and walnuts drizzled with a light vinaigrette dressing.

Endive bake

Place Belgian endive leaves on a baking sheet and brush with raw, organic, grass fed butter and/or top with grated cheese; bake until the cheese is melted.

Endive ceviche

As an alternative to traditional ceviche made with assorted seafood, try artichoke ceviche in Belgian endive.16

Endive dipper

Use Belgian endive leaves instead of crackers, and also try them with your favorite vegetable dips.

Endive in salads

Add chopped Belgian endive leaves to salads for a new taste sensation.

Endive in soups

Try substituting Belgian endive for cabbage in your favorite soups.

Endive on sandwiches

Replace lettuce leaves with Belgian endive leaves on sandwiches for a tasty kick, or better yet, use endive leaves in place of the bread.

Endive stir-fry

Boost the vitamin and mineral content of your favorite stir-fry recipe by adding chopped Belgian endive leaves just prior to serving.

Endive on the grill

Grill Belgian endive until lightly browned and wilted, then top with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and toasted walnuts.

Endive sauté

Sauté Belgian endive in raw, organic, grass fed butter and add a squeeze of fresh lemon and salt and pepper to taste. 

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