By Maryann Readal
Chives, Allium schoenprasum, is a flowering herb in the Amaryllidaceae family. It is in the same family as leeks, onions, garlic, Chinese chives, and shallots. Its hollow, grass-like stalks and star-shaped purple flowers are edible.The bulbs are small, unlike other members of this family, and are typically not eaten. It is an easy-to-grow perennial herb that likes sun or part sun and well-draining soil. In warmer climates chives bloom in the spring, and in cooler areas the early summer. Plants die back in cooler regions but will return from the tiny bulbs in the spring. It is the only Allium that is native to North America, Europe, and Asia. It is interesting to note that the term “chives” is most often used in the plural form. Perhaps that is because you cannot eat just one of them.
Due to the sulfur compounds in chives, they have been used as insect repellent in gardens throughout history. It is particularly effective against Japanese beetles. Despite their sulfur smell, chive flowers attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. In a study conducted by the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative’s Agriland Project in 2014, chives were named as one of the ten highest sugar producing plant species for pollinators (Memmott, 2014). It also has been found that the juice in chive leaves is effective in combating some fungal infections and mildew, giving another great benefit to having it growing in the rose garden since roses are susceptible to fungal pathogens.
Chives are also a good addition to rock gardens, with their roots keeping dirt from washing out from between the rocks. They would be a nice addition to fairy gardens with their green spiky stalks and purple flowers. Chives can be grown indoors on a sunny window sill for convenient use in cooking. When harvesting chives, it is recommended to cut the stalks just above the soil line to promote new growth of stems and bulbs. Stems should be cut several times during the growing season.
Chives’ main use is as a culinary herb. They give a mild onion taste to eggs, sour cream on baked potatoes, deviled eggs, spreads, and salads, and they dress up any creamed soup. Because of their delicate flavor, they’re best used as a garnish or added at the end of cooking. Chives are an ingredient in some traditional Polish, German, and Swedish dishes, and are included in the French fines herbes along with chervil, tarragon, and parsley. The flowers make a tasty and colorful addition to vinegar. Chives can be chopped and then frozen for later use. However, the fresh leaves have the most flavor.
Chives have been used as a medicinal plant for 5,000 years. It is said that Marco Polo brought chives to the west from his travels to China where they’d been used as a medicinal and culinary plant for 2,000 years. The Romans used them to treat sunburn and sore throat, as a diuretic, and to reduce blood pressure. Pliny the Elder, in his book Natural History in 77 A.D., wrote that “importance has recently been given to chives by the emperor Nero, who on certain fixed days of every month always ate chives preserved in oil, and nothing else, not even bread, for the sake of his voice” (Pliny, 1938). The Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, however, cautioned that “He who bears chives on his breath, is safe from being kissed to death” (Small, 2013). The Romanian Gypsies used chives for fortune telling. During the Middle Ages, some people thought that hanging a bunch of chives in the house would keep evil spirits and sickness away. Also during the Middle Ages, chives began to be incorporated into soups and stews. When the colonists came to America, they brought chive seeds with them. In 19th century Holland, farmers were known to feed chives to their cows to produce milk with a different taste.
Today, according to researchers, chives and other members of its family are being looked at for their usefulness in medicine. According to Varinder Singh et al., “Scientific evaluation of chives validates its traditional claims and demonstrates diverse pharmacological potential including an anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant, anthelmintic and antihypertensive.” But the authors state that further research is still needed on the bioactive compounds of chives. In addition, it would seem that a large number of chives would need to be eaten to achieve significant health effects.
Chives are The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for April. For more information about chives, a screensaver, and recipes, please visit the website.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) A bee visiting chive blossoms (Geert Hvit); 2) Chives growing in a rock garden (Jinka DI); 3) A loaded potato with chives (courtesy of the author); 4) Pliny the Elder (Public Domain); 5) A bunch of chive stalks (courtesy of the author)
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Friends of the D.D. Collins House. n.d. Herbs. Accessed 2/12/23. Available from https://www.friendsoftheddcollinshouse.org/herbs
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Memmott, Jane. 2014. Quantifying nectar resources from the flower to the national scale. Accessed 3/3/14. Available from https://www.agriland.leeds.ac.uk/news/documents/4_JaneMemmottnectarresources.pdf
Mohr, Susan. n.d. Chives, Allium schoenoprasum. Accessed 1/27/23. Available from https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/chives-allium-schoenoprasum/
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Singh, Varinder, et al. 2017. Allium schoenoprasum L.: A review of phytochemistry, pharmacology and future directions. Natural Product Research, Vol. 32, No. 18. Accessed 3/4/23. Available from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14786419.2017.1367783
Small, Ernest. 2013. North American cornucopia: Top 100 Indigenous food plants. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.