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Chicory: blue blooms dot roadside.

blue blooms dot roadside

Weediness is hard to define. Your weed may be a neighbor's prized wildflower or my succulent salad fodder. When all is said and done, a weed is a plant that grows where we wish it wouldn't or where we didn't plant it.

Driving along New York's summer highways, or strolling past neglected curbsides, you may spy a wiry plant with sky-blue blooms. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a member of the aster family and well worth a closer look.

Chicory practically defines midsummer, but in fact blooms from late spring into autumn. The bloom is a striking and very attractive blue. Its color helps in identification since chicory is the only blue flower we have that is so common and widespread. The seeds are a favorite food of goldfinches.

Of course, "flower" is a bit misleading since chicory, like all members of the aster family, presents what is actually many flowers in a compact flowerhead. Like the white petals (each actually an individual flower) of the familiar ox-eye daisy, each blue petal is a single ray flower adorned with teeth at the blunt end. Chicory offers nothing corresponding to the daisy's compact yellow disk flowers.

The branching leafy stems contain milky sap. The alternate stem leaves are lance-shaped and deeply toothed to lobed along the margins. Upper leaves are often toothed but not lobed. The lower leaves are stalked, while the upper leaves are stalkless.

Although chicory can be amazingly abundant along the edges of paths or roads, it is rarely found deep in meadows unless they have been disturbed. Careful scientific studies show that dirt clods offer the best germination sites, followed by gravel-covered soil and last by smooth-surfaced and litter-covered soils that are smooth in texture. Clods and adjoining soil surfaces are thought to better retain moisture and offer more protection for seedlings.

Usually standing shorter than the Queen Anne's lace that often accompanies it, chicory typically reaches one to three feet, but may rise to heights of five feet on occasion.

Arabian folklore suggests a less prosaic explanation for chicory's affinity for roadsides. The common name "blue sailors" originates in Arabian legends that tell of a beautiful girl who fell in love with a sailor. As sailors do, the young man, clothed in traditional sailor blue, set to sea. Saddened, the young girl sat down by the side of the road and waited for her sailor's return. Eventually, the gods took pity on the young maiden and turned her into a chicory plant whose blooms are the blue of her departed sailor's clothes.

Chicory has a long taproot which, properly prepared, has been used as a coffee substitute and additive. This is particularly true in the southern United States and was more generally true nationwide during World War II, when coffee from familiar sources was often scarce. Today, the caffeine-free roots are said to be making a modest comeback.

Chicory leaves are particularly favored for salad greens in parts of Europe. Young, tender leaves that are free of brown streaks or spots and picked from uncontaminated sites may be suitable.

Another culinary treat is witloof chicory. Witloof (said to be a translation for white-leaf) chicory is also called Belgian endive or French endive (Cichorium endiva) is a close relative of chicory. Witloof chicory has blanched, tight heads produced by growing the plant in darkness. These heads are called chicons and their production requires two crops to be planted and a period of cold storage.

Seeds are planted conventionally, but planting dates depend on locale and the cultivars used. Chicory is often planted as a second crop but should not be planted after crops requiring large amounts of soil nitrogen. Chicory is often planted after small grains. Roots are harvested in the fall before hard freezes. All foliage is removed and the roots are stored at zero to two degrees centigrade and 95 to 98 percent humidity.

During storage, the vegetative bud changes into the structures that would normally make up the flowering stem the following growing season. Subsequent forcing of the roots can be done hydroponically or by planting them upright in a solid medium such as sterilized, moist sand.

Darkness and temperature between 13 and 22 C are required. A new head, the white, bulbous chicon is the result.

In parts of Europe, witloof chicory is a widespread and accepted provender. Although witloof chicory has traditionally enjoyed only a limited market in the United States, that is beginning to change.

Because of its habitat preferences, chicory, unlike many other exotic species, usually does not appear to threaten native flora. With its bright flowers and useful culinary properties, chicory is a welcome migrant from aboard. So the next time you are out for a drive or a stroll, take a moment to examine this weed, appreciate its beauty and maybe savor its finer qualities over a light lunch and caffeine-free coffee.

Paul E. Woods a former college zoology instructor, is a nature writer from Hannibal, Oswego County.
COPYRIGHT 1999 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
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Title Annotation:chicory, a blue-flowered plant, can be used for a coffee substitute and for salad greens
Author:Woods, Paul E.
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Aug 1, 1999
Previous Article:BOG TURTLE: Loss of habitat leads to decline.
Next Article:The Fall and Rise of CATSKILL FIRE TOWERS.

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