Not-so-wild flowers

People go wild for wildflowers. It’s understandable. I’ve waded into meadow streams to get a close-up look at a tiger-lily, for example, or scrambled over boulders for a dermatitis-inducing encounter with a desert bluebell.

But what about those lowly flowers we see on our walks around the neighborhood? I don’t mean the cultivated ones. Those are just “garden-variety” flowers! I mean the weedy ones that grow along the roadsides, or the edges of parking lots, or in the abandoned lots.

We see this one all the time:

That’s chicory, a member of genus Cichorium. The local species is probably C. intybus, but I don’t really know. Locals call almost any showy blue flower a “bachelor’s button” but that common name is usually reserved for a thistle (Centaurea cyanus) with clusters of small flowers making up the head of the plant. The cultivar, the one the home gardener plants, is called blue cornflower

Chicory flowers are sometimes called “blue sailors.” The plant is often known as “coffeeweed” because the roots of some varieties are roasted and used to flavor drinks. An ersatz coffee can be made from them as well.

Chicory is a noxious weed in some places and forage for livestock in others. It’s an alien, originating in Europe, and like our cattle and horses probably came over with the conquistadors. I’m a descendant of aliens (my grandparents were immigrants), so I can appreciate a hardy survivor.

And these plants are hardy. It’s hot and dry, very hot and dry, during their flowering season. And the rest of the year it’s cold. And dry. Did I mention dry? As in arid?

Cichorium intybus is a relative of the dandelion, the daisy, and the sunflower. The family is called Asteraceae by botanists. “Aster” is Greek for “star.” It’s the largest family of plants, worldwide, with over 23,000 known species. When I took botany (in 1980!) the official name was Compositae, which described the bunching of little florets into one flower, much like you see in a sunflower.

Next time you are near a road cut, embankment, verge, weedy field, or other disturbed area, look for chicory. Those blue sailors came a long way to put on a show for us.

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