In all my Tidewater summers, I have yet to see chicory growing along the road along with the Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. Go west just a short ways, however, and it starts brightening up the roadside. The arresting blue of a chicory flower has always been one of the charms of visiting my relatives in the Shenandoah Valley, along with cool nights and mountain vistas.
When our children were little, we moved to the Valley ourselves for two years. The flowers and the goldfinches swooping in the thistles sustained me in a stressful time. I loved the chicory so much, I used it to make a first-day-of-kindergarten dress for little Ilse.I embroidered the petals with the prettiest blue floss I could find. The photo is decades old now, and the glimpse of chicory on the bodice a little vague, but the child is as radiant as I remember her.
This week I was in the valley visiting our daughter Anje. I noticed that her yard was fringed by a meadow, and that the meadow was hazy with blue chicory brightened by Queen Anne’s lace. This was my chance to dig up a few plants and bring them home to my wild kingdom. Maybe I could grow chicory for myself!
There was precedent for it. Though chicory didn’t grow along with other Tidewater weeds naturally, over the years, however, there were two places where I had seen it. The first place was in James Burkholder’s eclectic garden of exotic and heirloom plants at his home on Lucas Creek road not far from my parents. I’m sure he grew it because he was charmed by it just as I am.
The second place was Quarterfield Farm. When we kept our horse there, I found a stand of chicory right beside the open stable door, its blue flowers brightening the bench where we sat to watch the horses and share thoughts with the farmer after our work in the stalls was over. Probably the seeds had arrived in a bale of hay from a hayfield in the western part of the state.
Not far from the chicory was a sprawling bramble of blackberries. He said pick all I wanted. I shared the blackberry jam and cobbler with him.
The chicory is no longer by the stable door, nor is the farmer sitting on the bench. But this week the blackberries were rioting, thorny and vicious as ever. With permission from the caretaker, I filled my bowl one last time. A young red fox curled up in the grass not far from me, watching my every move with bright eyes. The mockingbirds chased and cavorted as always. The horses blew through their noses and cropped grass.
I brought the blackberries home and set them on the hearth next to the chicory blossoms trimmed from the plants Robby had tucked into the ground. I don’t know for sure that the chicory will take hold and grow here in Tidewater. I don’t know for sure that the blue flowers will gladden my heart in a few weeks.
But it is high summer. I cherish memories of gardeners and school girls, of barn doors and roadsides. The chicory is blooming somewhere in Virginia and perhaps in my own yard–one can always hope.
But what I do know is this: here in my Tidewater house, the blackberries have been transformed into a generous pie, its juices spilling over its crust and smoking on the oven floor. We will celebrate the season of chicory and blackberries. We will celebrate summer.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at [email protected]