by Trezalka Budinsky
Every summer brilliant blue ribbons would hug the roads and sidewalks of my hometown Bratislava, Slovakia. That iridescent blue sprouting out of the hot, gravelly soil and mirroring the clear sky above was no other than the chicory flower (Cichorium intybus). Every sunny morning from June to October the blue flowers would accompany me on all of my walks. Besides its obvious beauty, the flower stood out to me because of a story my mother told me when I was very young, which I will attempt to paraphrase here:
A beautiful, young maiden with Nordic blue eyes had to bid farewell to her beau who had gone off to war. Every morning she would walk out to the spot by the road where she last saw him and wait for his return. Months turned to years with her beau nowhere in sight. Exhausted and overwhelmed by sadness she finally sunk to the ground on that very spot by the road, doomed to forever wait for her love in the form of a blue flower. That flower was given the Czechoslovak name ‘čakanka’ (the root word ‘čakať’ means ‘to wait’ in English).
Much later I found out there were multiple versions to the origin legend of chicory, but most of them involve a girl, usually by the roadside.
After I moved away from my hometown to Pennsylvania to start university, I looked for things that would bring me constancy and continuity—as one away from home does. I was surprised to find there was no lack of the European-native chicory in the Eastern U.S. In fact, chicory is widespread in all 48 mainland U.S. states and Canada. And just like in Bratislava, its favorite place to grow is by the roadside. The origin legend does a great job of teaching us where chicory likes to grow, but why does it thrive in these inhospitable environments?
Chicory thrives on gravelly roadsides with full sun exposure for a few reasons. First, the roadside is inhospitable to many plants. So, by growing on roadsides, chicory avoids intense competition for resources with other plants. Chicory is also a plant that has been found to grow best in soils covered with rocks or lumps of clay, like those on the sides of roads. Rocky soils benefit chicory because the areas beneath the rocks retain moisture and provide a safe place for it to grow and establish its roots (see a full study about this). Although chicory is non-native in the U.S., only a handful of states recognize it as an invasive weed. That may be because it’s not a strong competitor and usually grows in scattered populations rather than taking over large areas for itself.
On my quest to get to know this resilient and stunning plant, I was surprised to find that chicory has been used as a crop and ground cover for centuries, if not millennia. The whole plant is edible by humans and livestock, including its roots, leaves, and flowers. In fact, chicory was most likely brought to North America on purpose because it was such a beloved crop. One of its most common uses was as a substitute or additive to coffee. Chicory’s roasted and ground-up roots make a drink very similar to coffee in taste and color but without the caffeine. This discovery unlocked a childhood memory for me: a casual morning at my grandma’s with a warm cup of “kid coffee,” as she liked to call it. It was something she’d buy for me every time I stayed over so I wouldn’t feel left out when she drank her morning cup. Sure enough, after some web scouring, I found that the “kid coffee” was chicory coffee.
Even though I have conflicting feelings about invasive plants, I’m glad that chicory is here in the U.S. with me, every summer growing along roads and footpaths, reminding me of my Slovak roots. And now, more than ever, I can’t wait for next fall to collect some chicory roots and drink a cup of my childhood (click here to make your own chicory coffee).
Trezalka is 22 and a senior at the University of Pittsburgh (graduating summer 2022) majoring in Ecology and Evolution.
Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons