I’ve written in the Earth Matters column twice before about the magic of the color blue in nature. First, in “It’s not easy being blue in nature,” I wrote about how rare blue is in nature due to its relative costliness to produce. Then I described the two pigments found in bird eggs in “Cracking the mystery of how birds’ eggs are blue.” Today I want to share with you what made me fall in love with blue in the first place: chicory.
Some say that chicory, a perennial wildflower in the aster family, has a rather “ragged” appearance. (I say, it is exquisite and perfect in every way.)
A stiff, almost woody stem grows from its basal rosette of leaves to a height of up to four feet. The leaves at the base are large and decrease in size as they go up. They are dark green and deeply toothed, resembling the leaves of its relative, the dandelion. Its large, deep taproot exudes a milky sap when broken open. The flowers, which are one to two inches across and range from a periwinkle color to a more dazzling cerulean, are rays extending from the center. The tips of each petal are notched or jagged. I look for them each year starting in late June, and with a little searching can still find a few stragglers around Halloween.
Every so often you’ll see a cluster of white or pink chicory flowers. Be they blue, pink or white, chicory flowers bloom in the morning. On sunny days, they’ve turned white and wilted by noon.
However, I have seen them remain open into the late afternoon on chilly, cloudy days.
No plant story would be complete, in my mind, without an exploration into its name(s). In my experience, chicory is the most widely used common name for this plant, but succory, blue sailors, ragged sailors, and wild endive are listed as nicknames. Succory probably comes from the Latin succurrere, “to run under,” referring to the plant’s deep taproot. The two nicknames, “blue sailors,” and the German nickname for chicory, Wegewarte, or “watcher of the road,” derive from two almost identical stories. In the first, a woman waits patiently for the return of her sweetheart, a sailor. When he drowns, the gods take pity on her and turn her into a “sailor-blue” flower: chicory.
The German tale is almost the same, except the young woman waits by the roadside wearing a blue dress watching and waiting for her husband to return from a war. When he doesn’t return, she turns into a chicory plant. Wild endive is an easy name to trace; its leaves are edible (tastiest when young), and a cultivar of the plant, Cichorium intybus var. foliosum, is known as Belgian endive and is eaten in salads. The word chicory itself traces back to the Greek kikhorion, which means endive as well.
The appeal of chicory for me boils down to the fact that this dazzling beacon of a wildflower thrives in the scrabbliest of waste places: construction sites, the sides of highways, and hellstrips (the strips of dirt between sidewalks and roads). Yes, you can find it in more scenic places like the edges of meadows and farm fields, but where I really see it flourish is on pavement and gravel. A perfect pick-me-up when I’m making my way through traffic, chicory is a diamond in the rough, but even prettier.
It would be enough for me to just enjoy the blooms as I’m driving on highways and parking lots. But chicory has a storied cultural history behind it too. Native to Eurasia, chicory’s roots and leaves have been harvested for culinary uses for thousands of years. In addition to its wide use in salads as a slightly bitter green, chicory was and is a relatively popular drink. Before coffee was introduced to Europe, people drank a coffee-like drink made by roasting, grinding and brewing chicory’s long taproot. While it contains no caffeine, the taste and aroma are similar to that of coffee. At various points in history, chicory has been used as a coffee substitute when coffee was scarce or inaccessible. People developed a taste for it, and it remains popular today as a coffee enhancer in France and the American South, especially in New Orleans.
And it may be that drinking chicory coffee has health benefits. Chicory’s roots are one of the richest sources of inulin, a fiber that is being studied for its properties as a prebiotic, blood sugar control, anti-inflammatory, and constipation relief.
We are in the final weeks of getting to enjoy this cherished roadside beauty. So next time you’re sitting in construction traffic due on Route 9 or Damon Road, notice chicory; maybe it will be a pick-me-up for you too.