Chicory is a wildflower that grows like a weed. It grows along the edges of highways, on median strips, in profusion. It grows low to the ground where larger plants rear up; tall as delphinium where there is a straight shot toward the sky.
Chicory is the blue of the sky on a cool summer morning -- and the blue of the sky at high noon when it is too hot for anyone to take a scythe or mower and level a field, a ditch, a median strip. As city dwellers retreat to shady spots and shadowed porches, out in simmering open spaces, weeds and wildflowers burgeon.
It is hard to separate weed from wildflower or, for that matter, weeds from other obscure plants. The summer my father died, as my mother and I worked in the garden, I weeded half a row of something before the rhythm of pulling was so regular that I knew I couldn't be pulling weeds. "Salsify," said my mother ruefully, but even so, by August we had salsify to spare because, in a good garden, in an orderly garden with rich black earth and ample rain, the turnips, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, broccoli -- all grow like weeds. Salsify, too.
Chicory is a member of the composite, or daisy, family. The genus is named for its compound flowerheads, tiny tubular florets surrounded by brightly-colored rays. Sunflowers. Black-eyed susans. Asters. Not all are as perfectly round as polka-dots. Thistles and burdock lack rays; in goldenrod, the rays are pistillate. Except that the flowers sit directly on the stalk, without graceful stems, chicory looks just as it should: like blue daisies.
In this large botanical bunch, there are weeds: ironweed, hawkweed, hempweed, Joe-Pye-weed, marsh cudweed, ragweed, hogweed, sneezeweed, fireweed. F. Schuyler Matthews, a New England botanist, found burdock "rank-odored" and horseweed "the most unattractive member of the genus." Black sheep notwithstanding, botanists seem fond of the family. Roger Tory Peterson says compositae is the largest family of flowering plants, perhaps the most recent to appear on the earth. "A great family," wrote Matthews at the turn of the century. "We all know that family best of all."
Wildflowers are nature's invention. Weeds are a human convention. The term is not taxonomic; the word is used at whim, often for alien plants, immigrant species that venture first along waterways and roadways, waiting to make their way among native species established inland.
In designating weeds, location is not an issue, but relocation might be. "Weed" warns us of something wily that could spread wildly. Rambling rose and naturalized daffodils make no one nervous, but blowsy dandelions do. Weeds produce so many seeds! The seeds can last as long as 70 seasons, and they seem designed for dispersal. They cling to feathers, fur and argyle socks. The seeds of weeds can ride the wind.
What's in a name? Perhaps low, snarled growth, dark and spongy, merits disdain, but any plant that flowers in the wild seems heaven-sent and heaven-bent. Even the matted crown vetch climbs up the sides of the ditches it covers. Hawkweed, if it hasn't the ethereal beauty of wild iris or of airy Queen Anne's lace, stands tall on its stalks, yellow as the sun against the sky.
My father praised all living things. He found wildflowers both plucky and ethereal. He loved chicory. "Look at the chicory against the sky," he would say as we walked through a pasture or field covered with a haze of blue. "Watch. It will vanish."
We would squat down and squint up. It was a grand illusion, but illusions become what we know. Having watched chicory vanish into the sky, I know that wildflowers ought not be thought weeds. No weed disappears that easily.
Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.