This week I step forward on behalf of chicory, a common wayside plant that many also consider to be noxious or worse. In the Golden Press guide titled “Weeds” (1972), Alexander C. Martin doesn’t beat around the bush: “Chicory ... is a Eurasian perennial that is clearly a weed and sometimes a serious pest.”
Even as far back as the century before Christ’s birth, the Roman poet Virgil paused to single out chicory’s pestiferous qualities in this manner: “And spreading succ’ry chokes the rising fields.”
Succory, blue sailors, and coffee-weed are but a few of the common names applied to chicory (Cichorium intybus). The plant was naturalized in North America shortly after the first European settlers arrived, especially in Pennsylvania where it was prized as both a medicinal and culinary plant. It quickly spread and is now firmly established throughout the United States and southern Canada.
The name chicory derives from its Arabic name “chicourey.” Succory, from the Latin “succurrere” for “to run under,” perhaps refers to the long taproots. And according to Harold Moldenke’s American Wild Flowers (1949), the designation blue sailors “alludes to a popular Old World legend of a beautiful girl who fell in love with a sailor. Her lover left her for the sea and so she sat day after day along the side of the highway looking for his return. Eventually the gods took pity on her and turned her into a chicory plant which wears sailor blue in its blossoms and still haunts roadsides in the hope of meeting the returning lover.”
The name coffee-weed obviously refers to the use of the roasted and ground taproot as an additive to coffee so as to enhance color and flavor; indeed, it has been used by itself as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee.
By any name, the long taproots and coarse stems of chicory make this plant the bane of commercial farmers in whose fields it has become established. To them it’s clearly a “weed.” No argument on that score. But for me and many others, chicory is a stunning “wildflower” — one that we can only marvel at when its blue floral disks appear along roadsides from early morning until mid-day from June into October.
There are many wondrous shades of blue displayed by our native Appalachian wildflowers, ranging from the electric shimmering of some hepaticas in early spring to the velvety tall bellflower in mid-summer to the soft glowing hues of the gentians in fall. But none of our native wildflowers displays that ethereal blue of the chicory flowers, which Emerson — who knew his wildflowers and his Virgil — considered “Succory to match the sky.”
Taking his cue from Emerson, the 20th century writer-naturalist Edwin Way Teal penned a little diary-style tribute to the plant in one of his books: “On this day, I drive to Concord, Massachusetts, for the annual Thoreau Society meetings tomorrow. Along the way, I see that most beautiful of blues, the tint of the wild chicory in bloom. It seems to me the most perfect blue on earth, the most perfect blue under the sky.”
Amen. Chicory blue: that most perfect sky-matching Carolina blue.