Chive Talkin’

OK, calm down, I admit that the title pun was uncalled for. My apologies to anyone who survived the Disco era. You are stronger for your struggle.

Chives are the first of the herbs to open their sleepy eyes in the spring and a harbinger that better weather is on the way. The joy of being able to add freshly snipped chives to scrambled eggs on an early March morning assures one that winter is finally in the rearview mirror, and that, as immortalized by the soaring falsetto of last surviving Gibb brother,  “You Should Be Dancing!” (Again, sorry…)

Chives belong to the same genus (Allium) as onion, leeks, and garlic. Although most of the onion family has shallow roots, Allium schoenoprasesum’s backstory is so deep rooted that pinpointing its nativity is challenging. The majority of reliable sources list the plant as native to both Europe and Eastern North America.  Chinese cuisine has utilized alliums in some form for 5,000 years, which further muddles the nativity puzzle, and the Romans brought chives to Britain. The species name comes from Latin “Schoenus”, meaning “rush-like” or “sedge-like”, so the botanical name translates as “Onion Rush”. The common name is a derivative of the Latin cepa, or onion.

In the Garden

The smallest edible allium, chives grow in clumps from tiny underground bulbs and produce round, hollow leaves that are narrower (1/8” to 1/4”) than typical onion foliage. Unlike many other edible onions, chives do not produce leaf bulbils, nor do they make large bulbs. The clumps spread slowly to about 2 feet in width and 12-18 inches in height. Like many clump-forming perennials, chives suffer from male pattern baldness in that eventually the center dies out, and the plants benefit from division every 3-5 years.

In early to mid-summer, chives produce round, golf ball-sized mauve flowers. Selections are available in white (‘Albidum’ or ’Corsica’) or rosy pink (‘Forescate’). The flowers are frequented by pollinating bees and butterflies, and chives are often used around vegetable plots to deter pests.

In the garden, chives are an easy, hardy, and reasonably drought-tolerant perennial. In the wild, chives are a scruffy little survivor whose strategy for enduring dry periods is to retreat into dormancy, so average garden watering is recommended in cultivation. Chives prefer full sun but will produce well in half a day of shade. Tolerant of a wide variety of soils, chives will grow best in well-draining soils high in organic matter, so a shovel full of compost every few years will be appreciated.

From a design perspective, chives make great “edgers” or border plantings, and small clumps are easy to tuck into crevices and rock gardens. Frost hardy in our area when used in pots, chives make a great addition to a balcony herb garden or a mixed container.

Photo: Jerzy Opiola

Photo: Jerzy Opiola

Chives are also easy to grow indoors in a sunny window. However, chives, like all onions, are poisonous to dogs and cats, so if you are growing chives indoors, keep them out of reach of Fido and Fluffy. Plants that are dug in the fall while fading into dormancy tend to become a bit “leggy” when brought indoors, so it’s best to wait until a good bout of cold weather knocks the foliage down prior to forcing new growth. To avoid bringing garden hitchhikers indoors, dig up a clump and divide the bulbs, then wash the roots in a bucket of water and pot them up in a well-draining planting mix.

If the thought of standing over a bucket of nearly frozen water washing chive roots on a brisk December day doesn’t strike your fancy, chives are also easy to grow from seed. Sow seed thickly and cover very lightly with a seedling mix; be patient, as the seed can be slow to germinate. Pot up clumps of a half dozen or so seedlings into 4” pots, then harden them off and transplant into the garden after they size up a bit and the danger of frost has passed. In warm weather, chives are also easy to direct sow in the garden, and will politely self-sow in our region if the seeds are kept moist. They can be overenthusiastic self-sowers in warmer climates if not deadheaded. The flowers can be cut for arrangements, and keeping the plants deadheaded results in more pungent foliage.

In the Kitchen

Harvest chives by grasping the top of as many leaves as you require for your recipe and cut them just above ground level. If not cut all the way to the base of the plant, the severed leaves will die back and you will be picking dead foliage out of your next harvest. Plants that are repeatedly cut back during growing season benefit from light fertilization. Better still, grow several clumps and harvest in rotation to achieve a constant supply. While I haven’t tried it myself, chives reputedly freeze well. My attempts at preserving them by drying resulted in a product that smelled of dried hay, with similar flavor and texture.

In the kitchen, the leaves and flowers make a versatile garnish to almost anything. Since overcooking chives renders them flavorless, add them to your dishes as a finishing flourish. In French cuisine, chives are part of the “Fines Herbes”, a mix of fresh herbs used after cooking to provide flavor and a splash of color. Their earthy flavor makes chives a favorite for topping a baked potato or sprinkled across the top of a hearty soup or stew. Add them to scrambled eggs, or use to garnish omelets for a splash of color and a mild onion kick. They’re also great in tuna or egg salads, compound butters, creamy sauces like hollandaise or alfredo, mushroom or sausage gravies, the list goes on and on.

Although containing many of the same sulfurous compounds as its larger siblings, chives are not believed to pack the same punch as other medicinally useful alliums. But the plant's culinary usefulness has been extolled for millennia, which undoubtedly has aided its apparent quest for global ubiquity. So folks, get out there in your garden and harvest a handful of chives. Spring is here, and in the face of one of the more miserable winters on record here in the Pacific NW, hope, and Allium schoenoprasum, is “Stayin’ Alive”.