If you don't grow herbs in your garden, outside containers or inside, you're missing out on powerful flavors, variety in your meals and impressive health benefits. Aromatic herbs are an excellent key ingredient to any garden, most providing you with a full summer of growth and beauty. Herbs are derived from the leafy green parts of plants, like their leaves and stems, while spices come from other parts, such as flowers, roots, bulbs or bark.
Herbs are often used fresh, while spices are usually dried before use in cooking. However, both offer unique and potent additions to your meals and your health. Chives are an herb with a long history. The plant is easily grown in your backyard or even indoors and offers several health benefits inside a fragrant and pleasantly subtle onion or garlic-flavored herb.
Chives are a member of the onion family native to Asia and Europe. They were actively cultivated during the Middle Ages and used in China,1 prized for their delicate taste. The wild cousin of the chive can be found growing throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The chive grows in clumps like grasses. Unlike the onion, there is no large bulb that grows underground. Instead, the chive is valued for the green leaves and round, puffy flowers.
The Romans brought chives to Britain, where they still grow wild near Hadrian's Wall, a defensive wall built in A.D.122 during the reign of emperor Hadrian.2 Today the plant is used as an herb and an ornamental garden plant. Chives are related to the lily family, as are onions, garlic and leeks,3 and a member of the allium family. Members of this family of vegetables share the same basic body type: thin grass-like leaves growing from a bulb or fleshy roots.
The botanical name, Allium schoenoprasum, is derived from a Greek word meaning reed-like leek.4 These herbs are among the easiest to grow in the allium family as they are perennial, coming back year after year with little encouragement, and they are among the first to appear in early spring.5 Historically, the leaves were used in fortunetelling and were dried in bunches to hang inside the home in order to drive away evil spirits and diseases.6
Allium vegetables contain organosulphur, flavonoids and a number of vitamins and minerals. These delicate herbs are nutrient dense, low in calories but high in antioxidants.7 In a recent study, chives ranked 14th in nutrient density8 when compared to 47 other fruits and vegetables identified as powerhouse plants — those most closely associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. The researchers classified the plants in raw form as different methods of cooking may alter nutrient value.
The scores were weighted using data on bioavailability. The percent of recommended daily value was capped at 100 in order to reduce the potential one nutrient would artificially tip the scales in favor of a fruit or vegetable. Items in the cruciferous family were at the top of the list, while those that were yellow/orange, citrus or allium were toward the lower half of the group.
It's important to remember that only the fruits and vegetables considered nutrient dense were included in the group of 47 evaluated. The chive blossom also contains nutrients important to your health and wellness.9 Analysis of the chive blossom by scientists in Poland revealed they contained important fatty acids including palmitic acid, linoleic acid and stearic acid as well as vitamin E.
Intake of vegetables rich in organosulfur has beneficial effects in several disease and illness processes, including:10
- Mouth cancer
- Improved sleep
- Stomach cancer
- Lung cancer
The benefits are related to the relatively high levels of organosulfur compounds, vitamin K, choline, folate and carotenes. Each of these nutrients play a vital role in your health and wellness. For instance, vitamin K is essential for strong bone health, and reduces neuronal damage in the brain,11 sometimes used for treatment in those suffering from Alzheimer's disease.12
High levels of vitamin A, carotenes and antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin are factors in antiaging and may protect you from lung and mouth cancers. Antioxidants in the vegetable help protect you against free radical damage at the cellular level. When cut or crushed, the leaves produce allicin that may help decrease blood pressure and your risk for cardiovascular disease.
There are several different varieties of chives that you may consider for different dishes you prepare, or as a light quick snack you can pluck from your garden.13
• Common Chives — These plants have a mild onion-like flavor that may be eaten raw or cooked and are popular in eggs, soups and stews. The plants grow 10 to 12 inches tall and have round, hollow leaves. Early in the summer, mature plants will flower with lavender-colored globes that are also edible. You can propagate these from seed, purchase plants that have been started or divide your own plants every two to three years to protect the health of the plant and increase your yield.
• Garlic Chives — These taste like onion and garlic, often included in stir-fry and meat dishes for added flavor. These plants grow up to 2 feet tall and the leaves are flat and dense. The flowers are white and appear in late summer to early fall. Garlic chives self-seed easily. To keep the plant from taking over your garden, consider removing the flower heads before they dry and the seeds are dispersed.
• Giant Siberian Chives — This plant has a stronger flavor than the garlic or common chive, rich in an onion-garlic taste. They look similar to the common chive but grow taller. They bloom a rose-colored flower in late summer that can be as much as 2 inches in diameter. The sap from the leaves can be used to deter moths and other insects.
• Siberian Garlic Chives — This variety is commonly referred to as "blue chives," with a similar onion-garlic flavor of the Giant Siberian Chive. The leaves are blue-green in color and they flower midsummer with pink blossoms. They do well in a sunny window through the winter and can be moved outdoors in the summer.
Chives are a perennial plant that thrives outdoors in temperature zones 3 through 9.14 The plant does best in soil that drains well, whether in your garden or in a container. If you are planting in the ground, add well-aged compost to amend the soil before planting seedlings, separated plants or seeds.15 If you're planting in a container, take care to ensure the soil is not pre-fertilized with a nitrogen-based product that may encourage rapid growth but leave you with a plant that has little flavor.
Start your seeds indoors about eight weeks from the last expected frost, assuming they will germinate in two to three weeks. Once your seedlings are ready to be planted outdoors, take care to place them outside for one to two hours a day for several days to harden the plants. This process gets the plant ready for outdoor life and reduces the chance a young plant will die prematurely. You may also consider purchasing young plants at a nursery.
These can be separated at home into four bunches per pot before being planted in your outdoor garden. Take care to separate the plants gently so as not to damage the root system. Chives thrive in near neutral pH soil, between 6.0 and 7.0. While they do best in full sun, if you live in southern climates, consider planting in partial shade to reduce heat stress on the plant. Do not mulch the plants to improve circulation at the roots, and weed diligently as they compete poorly with other plants.16
Chives are slightly drought resistant. They appreciate about an inch of water a week, whether from rain or your watering can. Puddling water around the base of the plant will encourage the growth of disease, so ensure the soil doesn't become packed or that drainage changes through the summer. Most of the time chives are resilient to pests, disease and deer. If you have problems with deer eating your garden plants, consider planting chives in bunches throughout to discourage foraging from four-legged wild animals.
Aphids more commonly appear in the spring months and respond well to a mild household detergent.17 The soap damages the insect's protective coat and causes them to dehydrate and die. The same can be used for mealybugs and thrips. Remember to spray the underside of leaves where eggs may hide.18
Chives are not often afflicted with these insects as they are more commonly used to repel them, being planted around ornamental flowers to deter aphid infestations.19 However, they do attract bees and have also been used to help restore the bee population. When the plants are overwatered or planted in poorly draining soil, they are prone to the development of several types of fungal growth including:
• Botrytis rot — Also called gray mold, this infection can spread quickly through your garden in damp, cool weather. Prune back the infected plants, taking care to thoroughly clean and disinfect your tools before using them on other plants. Aerate the root area for good circulation and consider using a copper soap fungicide.20
• Downy mildew — Appearing as yellow to white patches on the upper portion of the leaves, the best treatment is to avoid the conditions that encourage development, destroy any heavily infected plants, encourage aeration around the plant and consider copper spray for plants that may be salvaged.21
• Powdery mildew — This coats the leaves and stems of plants with a powdery white substance that is not fatal unless left uncontrolled.22 Preventively you may spray the plants with a mixture of 1 tablespoon of baking soda, one-half teaspoon of liquid soap and 1 gallon of water during humid and damp weather.
Baking soda mixture will help prevent the condition but not cure it. If powdery mildew develops consider trying a milk bath using 1-part milk to 2 or 3 parts water and spraying every day for 10 to 14 days.23 Normally a preventive, it has also helped to cure the condition.
Use scissors to cut your chives approximately 2 inches above the soil. Before the plant flowers, the leaves with most flavor will be on the outside edges of the clump.24 Once the plant has flowered consider harvesting the blooms for your salads and summer foods. Trim the flower, but remove the stem as it is not tasty. Chives have the greatest flavor in the early summer months. By midsummer your leaves may fall over and not be as flavorful.
Consider cutting back mature plants to 2 inches above the soil to encourage new growth. However, do not do this with plants that are less than 1 year old as it could damage their growth. Consider preserving your spring crop to use throughout the summer months by cutting and freezing, first on a cookie tray and then stored in a freezer bag.
Chives do not maintain their flavor well when dried, so if you'd like to preserve some of your crop, freezing is your best option. You may want to harvest the seeds at the end of the summer for use the following year if your winters are particularly harsh and the plants do not come back. The seeds store well in Mason jars in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator for up to three years.
Cooking With Chives
Chives are included in a group of herbs that are a staple in the French diet they call "fines herbes."25 The stalks are usually chopped and mixed with food as they are nutritious and lend a unique color and flavor to your meals. Chopped, they can be added to omelets, salads or sprinkled over baked fish. Chives can also be mixed into sauces and dips or folded in cheese or butter. Here are three flavorful and fun recipes to get your started incorporating chives into your nutrition plan: