Jane McLeod: The versatile chive

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One of the most popular and widespread culinary flavorings comes from the onion, or "allium," family. Within the larger family of onions, garlic, leeks and shallots is the delicate chive (Allium schoenoprasum) herb, nicknamed "The Little Brother of the Onion." And that, in effect, is what chives are.

Chives grow 12 to 18 inches in height in bright green clumps of tiny individual bulbs. They have small, spiky, cylindrical leaves that instead of being flat are hollow, tapered tubes ending in a sharp point. In summer, round blossoms, reminiscent of clover blossoms, made up of many individual six-pointed flowers but looking like one single bloom, burst out of their buds to become a riot of pink-purple pompoms dotting the mound of green.

The leaves actually grow best and provide better flavor if the plants are not allowed to flower, but it is not worth missing their bright show. Instead, trim away the entire flower stalk (thicker and stronger than the leaves) after flowering. The flowers at their peak are wonderful broken up and sprinkled into a salad when you want a stronger onion flavor than the leaves provide.

Chives do their very best in good, rich soil in full sun. But truthfully, they will grow anywhere and under almost any conditions. They are a hardy perennial that die in the winter but are among the first to send out new growth in early spring. Often, when the snowdrift they are under finally melts, you will find they are already up and out of the ground a couple of inches.

Keep them well weeded, enrich the soil with good compost, and keep them continually watered because they don't like to dry out. Either grow several clumps of chives keeping them at different growth stages, or scissor cut a clump back to about 2 inches in small sections (rather than just trimming the whole top) to have an ongoing succession of lovely fresh chive stalks throughout the summer.

Chives can be grown from seeds, but germination is slow and the quickest way to propagate is to divide and transplant the roots of established plants either in midsummer after they have flowered or in autumn when cutting back.

Little is known of this herb's history, although one form of chives was cultivated and recorded well more than 4,000 years ago in ancient China and appreciated by the traveler Marco Polo. He reported their culinary virtues to the West, where they rapidly became indispensable. They were probably used throughout Asia and have grown wild throughout most of the northern hemisphere, including Siberia, North America, southern Sweden and more.

Chives make a wonderful edging plant in the herb garden, in a container or as an indoor plant on a sunny windowsill to keep the culinary harvest going all year. However, they make an ideal addition to any cutting garden either for a splash of color from the blooms or for the grass-like shape of the leaves as contrast to the rest of the foliage. Versatile, hardy and delicious - a perfect combination.

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