Driving along it is difficult to imagine what it would be like without those colorful wildflowers/weeds of summer brightening up our Iowa roadsides. One of my particular favorites is Cichorium intybus L., better known as chicory, coffeeweed, or blue sailors. This beauty is easy to recognize mainly because it is one of the only blue-flowered weeds of summer. A single plant consists of several branched hollow stems, each ending in a single bloom approximately 1-1.5 inches across. The tip of every petal has five lobes. Plant size ranges from 1-3 ft. high but could reach up to 5 ft. Chicory can be expected to bloom from June through October.
Chicory's sky blue flowers add just the right touch to not only country roads, but city streets as well, proving that it can endure almost any environmental stress. Its only real enemy is routine cultivation making it a weed even the farmers can enjoy. In addition to roadsides, chicory is often found in waste grounds, pastures and meadows where each plant is free to spread its seed and return each year with minimal disruption. Europeans have found that chicory makes a good hay crop. It is also grown for a substance it possesses called pyrone which is used in bread and pastries to bring out the flavor of sugar. It's called coffeeweed because its roots can be dried, roasted and used as a substitute for coffee.
With such versatility, longevity, and beauty, is it really fair to call chicory a weed? It's not really growing where it shouldn't, it livens up the landscape, and it certainly gets plenty of attention. So--I guess it's not a weed, just a welcome addition to summer. (At least in the eyes of this nature-lover!)
This article originally appeared in the August 9, 1996 issue, p. 143.