Come midsummer the knee high perennial chicory (Cichorium intybus) blooms in vacant lots, ditches, and alongside roadsides throughout the land. Even though it’s considered a weed, chicory is one of my sentimental favorites. Many years ago when I took classes at the local arboretum to learn the differences between invasive weeds and native wildflowers, chicory was one of the plants I recognized immediately. Perhaps it was comforting to see another familiar face in a new crowd of weed plants to be studied and memorized.
When studying the flora of any region I think the battle lines get drawn pretty quickly between the “good” native plants and the “bad” weed plants. Invasive species represent a serious problem so sometimes that thinking makes sense, and chicory is indeed an Old World weed. Maybe I felt sympathy for a plant that was introduced into a new continent only to find purchase and comfort mainly in waste areas. A life that doesn’t seem so much a choice, but rather a purgatory. The story of chicory contains hopeful American themes like immigration, overcoming hardship, and success in spite of it all.
I like chicory because of its flower – usually a few coarse sky blue daisies about the size of a quarter scattered along the stem. Truly blue flowers are not that common in the Midwest. Hues of purples and violet are more likely to be seen. I also am happy when I see it grow along the roadsides, where sadly both it and I spend far too much time. It’s my brother of the commute. And the blue blooms of chicory are garden worthy but ephemeral. An individual blossom will open in the morning and last but a single day. The sight of blue chicory backlit by morning light is something to behold.
Chicory is one of the adaptable members of the aster family and cousin to sunflowers, daisies, goldenrods, and countless other kin. It has evolved for survival, but if chicory is one of the bad ones, it seems to me that it hasn’t strayed too far from redemption. It is a weedy plant, but I have only rarely seen it in dense concentrations, and then only in harsh areas like highway shoulders or rail yards where little else grows. I think it is odd plant. It seems to favor the roughest environments, but then seems willing to bow out gracefully as soon as conditions improve in higher quality old fields or remnant prairies. It’s almost as if the wild man at the party is inexplicably intimidated by his better civilized kin.
After all, what we call “weed” plants are the first ones to enter disturbed areas. They don’t know they’re bad. They’re tenacious, they germinate and grow quickly. They’re unglamorous, but they hold soil. They’re the first ones in. Nature’s unheralded healers of land. Working until pedigreed plants want a toehold, and then they’re run off with pesticides and hoes.
But, chicory is a survivor, and it’s the quality I like the best. It is a front line of the plant kingdom. Chicory will hit a barren city lot like the Marines hit Normandy. They hold their ground, win, and raise their blue florets in triumph. And after things settle down and get better they move on – looking for the next hot spot, a scar in some soil pile, or maybe a lonesome ditch that needs botanic attention.
So when I see chicory blooming these summer days I’m cheered by its presence, encouraged by its resilience, and grateful for those flecks of blue sky brought so very close to earth.
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