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Blue Roadside Flower - Chicory

Above image by Smithsonian Institution on USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

As you travel Indiana’s backroads in July and August, you can observe what we might call one of nature’s rarities – a distinct sky blue-flowered plant growing right beside the roadway. This plant is chicory. As a member of the aster family, it is a close relative to the dandelion.

Blue flowers are not unheard of in plants, but compared to other colors, they are somewhat rare.

So, if it grows along roadsides, it is decidedly a weed, right? Let’s withhold judgment on that consideration for now.

According to the Purdue University Center for New Crops & Plant Products website,, chicory is native to Europe, central Russia, and western Asia, and was cultivated widely throughout Europe in early times.

The Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide, at, says that chicory originated in the Mediterranean and became distributed throughout much of the world where it was grown for centuries as a salad green. Its cultivation in North America began in the 1700s and ended in about 1950 when it became more economical to import chicory. During that time, chicory escaped cultivation, and naturalized populations spread throughout southern Canada and the U.S., where it is most commonly found it in the north and west. Chicory grows abundantly beside roads and highways. It can also be found in lawns, pastures, fields, and waste places. The plant favors lime-rich soils but tolerates a variety of soil types.

The Purdue resource explained that chicory produces a large, tapered root, and both leaves and roots are utilized. Certain types of chicory are grown for tender leaves and flower shoots and used as pot herbs or greens. Forcing bloom in winter produces the witloof, or French endive, used as a salad. Roots of chicory are dried, ground, and used as a coffee substitute or supplement. When blended with ground coffee, they enhance the flavor and aroma of the brew.

Within our national land-grant university system, The University of Nebraska has helped spawn commercial businesses specializing in roasted chicory for coffee and chicory flour for different cuisines.

Although chicory grows like a weed on roadsides, it is somewhat difficult to cultivate. Cultural practices are described as similar to growing sugar beets, which are grown in Michigan, but not much in Indiana. The Purdue website said that soil is generally plowed to permit root development. Seeds are drilled in a firm, fine textured seedbed, at a depth of not more than 0.6 cm (about ¼ inch) in rows spaced 45-60 cm (17.7 – 23.6 inches) apart, at a rate of 2.25 kg/ha (about 2 lbs./acre). Germination is slow, which allows weeds to get a head start, requiring cultivation. Thinning of plants is required to allow for good taproot development. In some areas, seeds are broadcast over the seedbed, and seedlings are thinned to stand about 25 cm (about 10 inches) apart each way. Chicory is a heavy feeder of fertilizer.

The book, Weeds of Nebraska and the Great Plains, describes further uses of chicory. Chicory is grown as a hay crop in Europe. It contains pyrone, used in bread and pastries to intensify the flavor of sugar. When used as a coffee substitute, it is somewhat bitter and contains no caffeine.

So, while not cultivated (that I know of) in Indiana, this roadside “weed” has several interesting attributes.

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