Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Common Chives, Garden Chives, Gao choy (Cantonese)
About This Plant
Chives are a hardy, drought-tolerant perennial belonging to the Allium family, and have a milder taste than its cousins onion, garlic, and leek. It prefers full sun and grows in clumps from small underground bulbs. It produces round, hollow leaves, about 10-12 inches high, that are much finer than an onion and come to a point. Mid-summer, they produce round, globular pink flowers similar in appearance to clover. They are tolerant of a wide variety of soils but will grow best in soils with high organic matter. They can be grown from seed and are commonly propagated by dividing clumps into 4-6 bulbs. They are attractive in borders of perennial gardens or in containers. Their edible flowers can also be cut for arrangements.
Chives are considered a nutrient-dense food source with each tablespoon of chopped chives containing just a single calorie, along with calcium, Vitamins A, C, K, and folate. While it would difficult to ever eat a significant amount of them, they definitely could find their way into the kitchen more frequently as garnishes for soups, eggs, potatoes, and as a substitute for onions. They are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9, are deer resistant and make a wonderful addition to a beginners garden.
Chives have been used since 3000 BC and can be found growing wild in Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America. The ancient Romans correlated the strong tasting chive to physical strength and fed them to racehorses, wrestlers and workers to make them strong. Romanian gypsies used chives in fortune telling–by throwing the blades in the air while thinking of a question, and then interpreting the way they fell onto the ground. Dutch settlers in America obtained chive scented milk for cheese by planting chives in their cow pastures. Chives hung from the rafters were said to prevent bad luck.
Chives can be grown from seed, sown indoors in the Spring. Seeds may be slow to germinate, taking up to 21 days, taking 4-6 weeks to produce transplants. They also can be direct-seeded onto well-prepared seedbeds in the Spring or Fall, covering the seeds very lightly. If starting from seed, plants probably won’t be large enough to harvest for at least a year.
Chives can be transplanted out after danger of frost has passed about 4-6 weeks after germination occurs. Space plants 4-6 inches apart in all directions.
Chives prefer full sun. They will tolerate a wide variety of soils but will grow best in soils with high organic matter. Keep the soil moist but ensure good drainage. They also grow great in a good-draining container on a sunny windowsill. Regular cutting helps keep plants vigorous and healthy and encourages spreading. Keeping flowers picked discouraged drancy in warm weather. Clumps should be divided every 2-3 years to encourage vigorous growth. Keeping chives snipped back will discourage the dried, yellow stems from overtaking the entire lump. Chives can self sow and overtake a garden unless flowers are removed before they fade.
Harvest chives throughout the season to prevent leaves from becoming tough and to encourage formation of new bulbslets. Cut leaves toward the base about one inch above the ground. Leaves are used fresh and can be dried but will discolor and quickly absorb moisture. Chives can also be stored by snipping them fresh into ice cube trays, covering with water and freezing.
To save chive seed, wait until blossoms have faded and turned a pale tan color. Snip the blossoms from the stems. In a colander, rub the blossoms between your thumb and forefinger to release the seed. Remove the chaff by lifting the colander. Store the seeds in a cool dry place. Seeds will remain viable for three years.
- Flower arrangements
- Edging in a perennial garden
- Food; flowers are an edible garnish too
Chives are considered the mildest relative in the Allium, or Onion, family and leave the least aftertaste. The leaves can be used to flavor salads, dips, soups, stews, vinegars, cheese dishes, sour cream and butter. It is best used in raw preparations or added just before serving. Cooking destroys the delicate flavor. Chives meld well with fat and make natural companions to all kinds of dairy–butter, cream cheese, ricotta and sour cream, and cream cheese. They pair well with parsley, tarragon, and chervil which together make up the well-known French “fine herbs”.
Chives’ gorgeous purple blossoms are also edible and will make a lovely pink vinegar when steeped for several weeks. Fresh flowers can be added as a garnish to salads and other dishes.
Chives belong to the Allium family which is well-known for its antibacterial and health-promoting properties. Certain compounds found in chives, including sulfur have been shown to deter cancerous cells from spreading. Chives are packed with Vitamin K, a critical component in bone density. They also contain both choline and folate which, individually, have both been linked to improving memory functions.
An old British tradition suggests using chives to border one’s garden or hanging them over the doorway of the home to prevent evil spirits and disease from entering. Chives were used in protection charms, particularly those meant to ward off disease in the home of young children.
Chives are believed to be Mediterranean in origin and not native to North America. It’s widely agreed among botanists that the cultivated version closely resembles its wild ancestors, which still grows wild in the mountainous regions in temperate climates worldwide.