Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 7-22-07
Jeff Gill

Who You Callin’ a Weed?

Jolting up from almost every roadway and curb in the area, suddenly appearing, bristly and stalky small shrubs, covered with light blue flowers: they are chicory.

If you’ve had the pleasure of New Orleans region hospitality, and drunk the coffee, you’ve ingested a bit of those plants.

Chicory, they say, goes back to Andrew Jackson and the Battle of N’Orlins, when pirate captain Jean Lafitte could not smuggle in coffee anymore when Admiral Cochrane of the Royal Navy blockaded the port.

So they roasted and ground the root of chicory, and brewed up their own version cut half and half with the dwindling coffee beans. And they never stopped.

The coffee content is higher, to be sure, but the savory tang in a Louisiana (or parts of Tennessee) cuppa joe comes from the plant with those beautiful azure flowers, which are no doubt being sworn at this very moment by folks with weed whackers.

Chicory is a native plant, and along with the now erupting goldenrod shoots and the early stems of my beloved ironweed, they dominate the later summer in ditches and medians and other less heavily tended open areas. What dry weather and harsh conditions do to lawn grass is where the long-time local plants thrive, along with a fair measure of invaders like dandelions and garlic mustard.

More sadly, chicory is the first of the series of blossoms that announce the latter half of summer, from post-fireworks chicory to mid-August’s gold and purple of goldenrod and ironweed, to the profusion of asters and michaelmas daisies from Labor Day. Asters are the little star shaped flower all up and down the last tall growth of the summer, from the Greek “aster” for star, and the Native Americans knew it as the herald of first frost.

In my neighborhood, the deer are not only so hungry but thirsty enough to eat sedum and peony, hosta and um, some other plant I’m not sure of. But they’re eating stuff I’ve never seen them go for, leaving only the basil and boxwood alone.

The marigolds, though, are showing their central American roots by just shouting their silly orange heads off in the heat, barely wilting even when we forget to water (when I forget to water; the Lovely Wife never forgets when she’s home). Deer apparently won’t touch them, though the idea that they don’t eat what’s next to them has been refuted by events the last few summers.

We’re thinking about a whole garden of marigolds, basil, and lavendar next year.

Now, when you’re talking about native plants, the amazing thing is that most of what makes up the green in an average lawn right now has only been in this country less than a few centuries. Dandelions, plantain, clover, most daisies, a fair amount of the grasses, and of course crabgrass are all introduced species, landing somewhere in the wake of the Jamestown settlers in 1607.

Actually, some botanists think it likely they came ashore when the early ships shoveled their ballast of gravel and dirt from Portsmouth and the Thames estuary off onto the shore in Virginia, to make room for loads of tobacco heading back home. The dirt harbored the seeds which germinated and, um, spread.

At any rate, chicory’s blue splatter along the roadways reminds us that summer is halfway (culturally, anyhow, not astronomical summer). Make the most of what we have left, which is quite a bit!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he tends to just let stuff grow in his lawn. Ask him about an odd plant by your curb at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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