After a few days’ search, I identified the blue flowers growing all over the damn place near my apartment in south Chicago. They are chicory! Cichorium intybus, to be pedantic.
They are members of the Dandelion family of the Aster subclass of the flowering plants division. Asters are some of the most biologically advanced plants alive. Other members include sunflower, dandelion, prickly lettuce, artichoke, and chamomile. They produce compound flowers which are actually made up of many smaller flowers. Each flower produces its own ovary and seeds, which means that an Aster flower head might get laid hundreds of times in a season (flower sex often involves bees, which help to speed things up because who wants to take their time with sex when there are bees around?)
In our case, each “petal” of the chicory is actually a separate flower. They overlap all the way to the center of the head, where all the pistils end up clustered together. These are called “ray flowers”, since they radiate outward. They are also edible, slightly bitter, and might look good on a fancy, fancy salad.
If you decide to pull one up, make sure you dig down a ways before pulling, or you will likely break the root (I did). The leaves can be boiled briefly to reduce their bitterness. The bitterness can get your digestion going and help cleanse your liver. I felt pretty good after eating three plants’ worth with a tahini vinaigrette.
Chicory is most famous for its roots, which contain large amounts of inulin (not insulin), which is an energy-storage substance produced by some plants. It’s kind of a big deal (source: wikipedia). If you roast it, the inulin is converted to another stuff which can be ground up and used like coffee, or added to regular coffee (best results)!
Taste test: burnt caramel. Not awful, but not splendid. I was all over the place with roasting these guys. They were in a dutch oven over untamable flames for 90 minutes, then in a regular oven at 350 for 20 min. You may have better results with lower temperatures, or with coffee beans.
Commonly found: roadsides, vacant lots, disturbed soil