Chicorée

The blue of the chicory flower is stunning. But by late afternoon the flowers are dead and you would think that the plants will never flower again. At the next sunrise it is again ablaze with flower heads each 3 centimetres wide.

What seems to be one flower consists of about sixteen florets crowded into a head. Each apparent petal is in fact a complete flower. Looking at such a 'petal' you can see that it is serrated with five points. Each point represents a vestige of an original petal of the ancestral flower, realigned to make a single blue strap. Each such strap (a ligule) has an associated compact tube of stamens surrounding a style. The flower heads are grouped with others at angles of the stem, each blooming in turn, which gives an odd appearance to the plant with the blooms scattered on a spiky stalk. This beautiful flower is common, especially so on calcareous soils.

The chicory, also called succory (the same word in origin) has been anciently cultivated and it and a related species have become linguistically very confused between English and French. The root is cultivated to be roasted to form an ersatz coffee. That use - chicory - is easily understood. The roots saved and 'forced' in the dark to form the plump vegetable buds or 'chicons' are called 'endive' in France but is called 'chicory' in England.

A close relative (the Batavian endive), which on the green grocery shelf looks like a lettuce, is normally blanched in the centre to reduce its natural bitter taste, and is called 'chicorée frisée' in France and 'endive' in England. The word endive is from a middle eastern word for chicory. There also exists the 'batavian lettuce' on the racks of the supermarket. I am confused each time I think of these alternatives! It seems strange that a plant whose taste is, when green, noticeably bitter, should have such a history of cultivation. Chicory is probably the 'bitter herbs' of the Bible (Exodus 12,8).

The flowers attract many bees and hover flies to their nectar in the morning light of their flowering. I cannot detect a perfume. On the flower in the photo is a hover fly (Episyrphus balteatus). This fly is known for its extensive migrations. It frequently visits Britain in large numbers and this year has plagued visitors to the coast of Bridlington, bothering the unsuspecting people who imagine them to be wasps. They look very like wasps but do not sting nor buzz. They lay their eggs near aphid colonies, where the larvae may be seen sucking the aphids dry. The aphid is held at the end of the narrow end of the slug like larva and reminds one of the image of a sea-lion balancing a ball on its nose.

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