Chicory and Chiggers

Submitted by Faye Mahaffey

OSUE Brown County Master Gardener Volunteer

My husband and I love to take long drives in the surrounding areas to check the crops. The soaring temperatures have certainly put stress on everything, and we all are hoping for cooler weather and some rain. (I know, can you believe I am wishing for rain now?) I continue to water my tomatoes, cucumbers and squash every other day. The plants in the perennial bed are looking very thirsty. I try not to look their way as I carry water to the petunias planted close by.

We headed to town early this morning and we noticed the familiar bloom of the Chicory plant lining both sides of the road. When I arrived home, I headed to my favorite wildflower reference book, Wildflowers of Ohio, written by Stan Tekiela. My husband quickly commented, “Wildflower? Isn’t that a weed?” Tekiela’s information for Chicory (Cichorium intybus) includes:

Family: Aster (Asteraccae)

Height: 1-4 Feet

Flower: Stalkless sky blue flowers, 11/4 inches wide, each with up to 20 petals (ray flowers); flowers sparsely populate a tall stem and close by early afternoon; petals (ray flower) are square-tipped and fringed; color ranges from white to pink, depending upon age and location

Leaf: long, toothed basal leaves, 3-6 inches long, similar to dandelion leaves; stem leaves are oblong and much smaller, ½-1 inch long, lack teeth and clasp the stem

Bloom: summer, fall

Cycle/Origin: perennial, non-native

Habitat: dry, sun, along roads, open fields

Range: throughout

Also known as Blue Sailor or Ragged Sailor, its few flowers open one at a time and last only one day. This European import, believed to come from Eurasia, was brought to the United States to be cultivated for its long taproot, which can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or additive. Its edible leaves, like dandelion leaves, are high in vitamins and minerals, but taste quite bitter. Have you tried Chicory “coffee”? I have to admit that it is not at the top of my list to try!

I’m sure some of you are wondering how Chiggers fit into this story. We stopped at the farm to check on the barn painters. I walked around looking at their progress and of course I was walking in a weedy area. I am basically a chigger “magnet”, and we needed to head home to clean up ASAP. In a recent Ohio State University Extension’s edition of Buckeye Yard and Garden, it was shared that there is probably no creature on earth that can cause as much torment for its size than the tiny chigger. Tiny six-legged chigger larvae attack campers, hikers, bird watchers, berry pickers, fisherman, picnickers, and homeowners in low, damp areas where vegetation is rank such as woodlands, berry patches, orchards, along lakes and streams, and even in driers places where vegetation is low such as lawns, golf courses, and parks.

Contrary to popular belief, chiggers do not burrow into the skin. Instead, they stay on the surface of the skin and crawl to the base of a hair follicle to feed. Once settled, the larva injects the skin with digestive fluids using its piercing, sucking mouthparts (capitulum), and then they ingest the resulting “cell puree”. Some people are highly sensitive to the chigger’s feeding activity, and their skin will swell and surround the larva. This often kills the chigger, and the dead larva found within the swollen skin gives rise to the misconception that chiggers burrow into the skin.

Chiggers are usually associated with spring and early summer; however, they can undergo three generations per year in warm climates. To avoid being the victim of chiggers, avoid walking through brushy areas or wear long white pants with the socks pulled over the pant legs (quite the fashion statement, don’t you think?). Insect repellents such as DEET can help to ward off chiggers. Apply repellent to both the skin and clothing, especially to clothing openings at cuffs, neck, waistband and upper edges of socks. Follow all directions carefully. It takes several hours for the chiggers to settle, so bathing immediately after hiking in weedy areas can significantly reduce the number of bites. Calamine lotion and similar products will help to reduce itching and the risk for subsequent skin infections.

Insecticides can be sprayed to control chiggers. For the best results, target areas where chiggers are most likely to converge, such as fence rows and garden edges where shrubbery is dense. Before using anypesticide, always read the label and follow directions and safety precautions.

The bottom line for me and other chigger “magnets” is to be pro-active and use a repellent before you head out to enjoy the outdoors!