There's no missing them this summer: colorful chicory and stately Queen Anne’s Lace swaying in the breeze along many of the highways of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Their roots go deep into the dry soil on roadsides, and into American and European history. And while these wildflowers widely are thought of as weeds — likely because they're difficult to eradicate — both have edible and beneficial properties.
Chicory and Queen Anne's Lace are native to Europe but have been spread to many parts of the world. In fact, both plants now grow in the 48 contiguous states and in most of Canada. Their flowers bloom during the same months, from mid- to late spring through October, and attract many insects, including bees and other pollinators.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is unmistakable, with a striking brilliant blue flower made up of rays and measuring an inch or two across. Only a few flowers on each plant open at a time and they last only one day. By late afternoon, chicory's flowers have withered and closed, their backs a dull pink.
The plant's stalk is rigid, can reach 5 feet in height, and is more square than round. Chicory leaves are toothed, somewhat similar to that of the dandelion. They can be eaten in a salad or as a vegetable.
The roots have been prized for centuries, roasted as an additive to or a substitute for coffee. It was popular with coffee in Holland in the 1750s and took the place of coffee in France in the early 1800s when Napoleon briefly halted imports of the beans. The French liked the chicory beverage so well that they continued to use it as an additive. In the U.S., chicory use began in Massachusetts around 1785 and became more widespread in the South during the Civil War when Union blockades shut off coffee imports. In New Orleans, coffee with chicory remains a traditional drink.
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is the direct ancestor of the modern garden carrot. The plant is named for Anne, queen of Great Britain from 1702 until her death in 1714, and her great-grandmother, Anne of Denmark, who lived from 1574 to 1619.
The flower primarily is white, but sometimes pink, and it looks like lace with one small red component in the center — said to represent a droplet of blood where Queen Anne pricked herself.
It is a biennial, blooming in its second year, and can grow to 5 feet. The flower exhibits a curious effect once the seeds mature, curling up to look like a small bird's nest. The juice of a crushed leaf or the hairy, wiry stem has an unmistakable odor of carrot. And like its relative, the plant's root is edible, but is best when young and it should be cooked.
Despite chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace’s attractive and edible properties, the “Peterson Field Guide for Medicinal Plant and Herbs” offers warnings for both. It says chicory may cause “rare allergic reactions” in sensitive people and that Queen Anne’s Lace may cause a condition called phytophotodermatitis. After contact, the skin becomes sensitive to ultraviolet light and blisters can form in sunlight. It is wise to use gloves to handle the plant, particularly its leaves.
The guide says “proper identification is essential” for Queen Anne’s Lace since it looks similar to the highly toxic poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), which can cause death within minutes to humans and animals that ingest it.
Both chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace have been shown to have medicinal properties. Tea made from Queen Anne's Lace is a diuretic and is bactericidal. Root extract from chicory is a diuretic, a mild laxative and can lower blood sugar.
So while it may not be apparent to the motorists who zoom past them each day, there is a certain beauty to these European imports.
Former Post-Gazette online editor Pete Zapadka is a wildflower aficionado by day and an amateur astronomer by night. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @pzapadka.