It was early morning, the sun still low, and the dew was heavy as I turned from our lane onto the county road. It was subtle but struck me nonetheless — the silver-blue lining on both sides of the road. I smiled and said to myself, maybe out loud even, “chicory.”
It is a low-growing perennial, non-native, not really invasive, typical to sandy waste areas and very typical along roadsides between the gravel/pavement and field edges. It blooms from mid-summer to October. Flowers are silver dollar size with multiple rays of a delicate, light, azure blue. Each petal is squared and ragged at the end. The stems are a light green with tiny leaves towards the top and larger basil leaves all but hidden down low. That morning, the stems and surrounding vegetation, laden in the morning mist of heavy dew, were glistening silver and highlighted with the pale blue blooms. It was a beautiful beginning to my ride and I smiled.
I knew it would be short lived, this silver-blue lining, as the flowers open with the morning dawn and then close by midday. The dew soaked plants would dry in the rising sun and gone would be the soft silver-blue lining of early morning. You steal these views when they happen, maybe get a photo (I did) but photos never do the look and mood justice.
I’ve always liked this plant, though the native plant snob I am, this one strikes my fancy. It is tough, but goes gently and does not overwhelm the landscape. It sticks to the gravelly dry edges many other plants cannot endure.
It is steeped in history and folklore, most notably the tough, deeply running taproot, when dried, is steeped as coffee or a coffee additive. I recall years ago when I was also less the coffee snob, I drank instant coffee and there was one brand, Sunrise, that advertised on the label “made with chicory.” So I could say in my edible and useful plant interpretive programs, I was using this wild plant without going through all the work of digging, collecting, drying, and preparing the root myself.
It is in the Asteraceae family, a group of plants now coming into their own in September with blooms, often shades of blue, that carry us into the fall season. Cichorium intybus is the scientific name for you botanical enthusiasts. Intybus comes from Latin and means endive. The leaves were often eaten as endive. Blue sailors or ragged sailors are two other common names.
I double checked the botany books and field guides of our library to make sure I had the scientific names correct. Botanists change names from time to time. Chicory was once in the Compositae family with daisies and dandelions. Now it is an Asteraceae family member, more with other asters.
We have two copies of the "Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America" in our home library. Jackie and I each had a copy when we met and married and kept them both. To check the plant name I happened to pull her copy from the shelf. Flipping to chicory, I see she made a note in pencil in the margin by the plant, “Oakwoods, 7-30” She liked to write in the book where she first found and identified a plant and what time of year it bloomed. I smiled remembering her love of the plant and what had to be her excitement when she first identified it.
I smiled at the “Oakwoods” entry. Oakwoods is the Huron Clinton Metropark in southeast Michigan where a young Fred Wooley worked as a park naturalist and first met a young park visitor, Jackie Lewandowski. Who knew we would spend the next 40 years together, enjoying the chicory, other plants and animals, natural landscapes and many silver-blue linings?
On the way home that day, I passed coming towards me a huge blue tractor pulling a big blue brush hog mower. It was then I noticed my side of the road had been mowed. I knew what I would find as I rounded the last curve before our lane. The silver-blue lining, all of the plants, were cut short. I smiled and shook my head. It will grow back and I was thankful for the short time I enjoyed it that morning. I have the memory.
You can make your memories. Every cloud has a silver-blue lining, right? Along your roadside or a bit further back, in some nature nook or cranny, keep your eyes open. Search, find, and enjoy your silver-blue lining. It may come when you least expect it. When it happens, it might not last as long as you want. You will smile though, and treasure the memory forever.