Chives Can Color Your Plate

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.


The spring garden takes on a colorful attractive appearance when the chives (Allium schoenoprasum) bloom in May and June. The pretty lavender-pink globular flower heads of chives not only beautify the garden, but they can also be used as a garnish for salad dishes. Chives are also beneficial to rose bushes, since they emit an odor which discourages aphids.

Allium Herbs Have Universal Appeal

Chives are part of a large genus of approximately 500 species of mostly strong-smelling perennials that contain bulbs or underground stems. These allium herbs include garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, and chives, and belong to the lily family. Various allium species have been cultivated since earliest times and are universally important as vegetables, flavorings, and medicinal plants.

These allium herbs were popular among the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The strong odor, so typical of these herbs, is due to a variety of sulfur compounds, such as alkyl sulfoxides and allyl sulfides. They are reported to have beneficial effects on the circulatory, digestive and respiratory systems.

Chives Are Hardy

Chives are native to the cool regions of Europe and Asia. Now they grow wild in North America, especially around the Great Lakes region. They can even be found growing wild in your backyard lawn. Chives are a popular hardy garden plant that grows from 8 to 15 inches tall.

They have slender bulbs that grow in tightly crowded clumps. Chives can be propagated by dividing the clumps. They can grow with full sun or partial shade. Chives are winter hardy, drought tolerant, and can grow in almost any garden soil. Chives can also grow indoors during the winter in a container that is placed on or near the windowsill.

The Leaves Are Versatile

The grey-green leaves of chives are cylindrical and hollow, and should be harvested before flowering. A positive aspect of the plant is that the leaves can be harvested whenever they are needed, since the leaves will quickly re-grow. After flowering, the leaves should be cut back to about three inches above the ground so that the plant will produce new leaves.

The leaves are best used when fresh. However, they may also be finely chopped and frozen for later use. The leaves, however, do not keep their flavor when dried. Chives have a mild onion flavor. Their pungency is not as pronounced as that of garlic and onions, which are considered the bigger cousins of chives. The delicate flavor that chives impart to food makes it a very useful herb to use in a variety of situations.

Soups, Stews, Salads and Sauces

Chives are widely used in stews and soups, especially potato and asparagus soups. The chopped leaves can be sprinkled in salads or used to flavor various sauces, dips, soy mayonnaise, and sour cream. Chives can also be used to garnish cottage cheese, and potatoes.

Allium Protection

Chives have similar properties to other allium vegetables, except that chives are milder, since they have fewer sulfur compounds. While garlic or onions are well documented to possess anticancer, anticlotting, hypolipidemic, antibacterial, antiviral, and decongestant properties, chives could be expected to possess similar, but substantially attenuated, characteristics.

Population studies have shown that a higher intake of allium vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of several types of cancers. The organosulfur compounds they contain inhibit tumor growth and cell proliferation, and arrest the cell cycle in tumor cells. Allium vegetables, including chives, especially have a protective effect against both esophageal and stomach cancer as well as prostate cancer. The highest antioxidant activity in chives is observed in the leaves, which are also rich in flavonoids.

There are no side effects or dangers from the use of chives. However, large quantities may cause stomach irritation.

Other Cousins

A relative of chives is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), a perennial that possesses leaves which are brighter green, flatter and more angular. The garlic chives have larger bulbs, and star-shaped white flowers. Garlic chives can be used in many ways that are similar to that of regular chives.

Scallions, or spring onions (Allium fistulosum) are also closely related to chives. These onions have pencil-thick stems and hollow leaves which grow about 12 inches high. The cylindrical bulbs are normally one-half an inch in diameter. It is suggested that scallions aid digestion and are useful for the treatment of respiratory tract infections. The lower stems are commonly used in soups and stews, entrees, and vegetable dishes such as haystacks. Scallions appear to have a mild sedative effect on some people.

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