Q: We enjoy seeing the lovely sky-blue flowers growing wild along roads at this time of the year. And they are even more attractive when mixed in with the white flowers of Queen Anne's Lace along Ashmere Lake in Hinsdale. My question is, what are they?
— Maggie, Lenox/Hinsdale, MA
A: Although designated as a "common weed" by most, it is hard to find a prettier flower, wild or cultivated than chicory (Cichorium intybus) a plant "known to the ancients."
Early Romans used it to treat liver ailments, and later herbalists recommended concoctions made from its roots as a tonic, diuretic and laxative. And some herbalists considered it a remedy for nursing mothers having trouble producing milk.
Today, "Mosby's Handbook of Herbs & Natural Supplements" by Linda Skidmore-Roth, a reference for among others, the medical profession, provides up-to-date information on this and some 300 other herbs. This second edition includes precautionary information, and for chicory, has advice such as "... should not be used during pregnancy and lactation and should not be given to children." It also cautions persons who have cardiovascular diseases should avoid its use, and persons with gallstones are advised to only use this herb with caution and under the supervision from a qualified herbalist.
It was introduced to America from Europe and used widely in early times, and during the two World Wars; its roots provided a coffee substitute and it still does to a lesser extent.
The plant is often included in wild food guides, where we might read how to prepare this coffee substitute. To make your own — and I include this to show how easy it is, not as a suggestion that you try it — dig up a few tap roots, scrub with a brush, wash and roast slowly in an oven with the door open a crack.
Roast until the roots break with a snap, exposing the dark interior.
When cool, grind and save to extend or flavor coffee or use alone in lesser amounts as you would true coffee. Note Moby's warnings listed above.
Learn more about this dandelion relative in wildflower guides, guides to weeds, a variety of herbals (one mentioned above), wild food guides and gardening journals. And while you will find it listed under its most widely used name, chicory, (or its Latin name), you may be surprised to learn it has many common names. A few are coffeeweed, blue sailors, blue daisy, blue dandelion, Belgian endive, cornflower, wild succory, and to be sure, there are others.
It seems to be growing everywhere and putting forth its blossoms that are accurate enough on sunny days to remind outdoor folk when it is lunch time.
The blossoms open in the morning and turn to face the sun as it moves across the sky and close up by noon. Sometimes, on days when the sun becomes obscured by clouds, they may remain open and on days when it is cloudy all day they may not bloom at all.
Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist used chicory as one flower in his floral clock.
While it is grown today in Europe as a hay crop, it is not commonly grown commercially in the United States, though it was imported in the 1700s and Thomas Jefferson was one of its early enthusiasts, growing it in Monticello in the 1790s. Today, it needs no help.
QThom, we are wondering if the hummingbird calendar is mixed up? Sunday morning (July 31) as it was raining, we suddenly had a profusion of hummers. We have three feeders and occasionally see a few, but suddenly, we had three or four feeding and others fighting to get in on all of them. It's as if they are getting ready to fly south now. Any thoughts?
— Charlie, Lee, Mass.
A This is not unusual. I believe the young are on their own now, so this will account for a few, if not most, of the birds you saw. Additionally, some adult males begin migrating south as early as mid-July.
The peak is in September, although we will be getting some reports into October.
Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.