Chives have been spicing up and adding their unique flavouring to foods for over 5000 years. Their native habitat was the Orient and surprisingly, they were found growing along the banks of streams and waterways. The earliest reference to chives being used as a culinary herb is in China, then Greece. In the sixteenth century, they made their way into European herb gardens, and the early colonists brought them to North America. Unlike their garlic cousins, early herbalists found little medicinal uses for these alliums, however, many folks thought chives had magical powers to drive away diseases and evil influences.
All allium species give off a warm vapour from their sulphur rich oil. This oil is an antiseptic and helps lower blood pressure, but only in very large quantities. Because chives have so little of this oil, unlike the larger alliums such as onions, they have little in the way of medicinal applications. This oil, however, is what gives chives their wonderful flavour.
In their culinary capacities, chives tastes like sweet, mild onions and are usually sliced finely and used in a wide variety of recipes, or their slender leaves can be tied around small bundles of vegetables, such as carrots and asparagus, for some decorative and unique flavouring effects. Chives complement a wide variety of foods from potatoes, artichokes and tomatoes to fish, poultry and shellfish. They also add a special touch to creamy sauces and cheese and egg dishes. The only flavour chives does not compliment is anything sweet.
Chive flowers are far too often overlooked as a wonderful edible. Used in salads or as a garnish, they are quite remarkable. The new variety Allium schoenoprasum ‘Profusion’ is noted for its prolific production of sweet and very flavourful flowers, which, by the way, are sterile. The plants are reproduced by divisions. Introduced to Canada by Ricter’s Seeds in Ontario, this variety is commercially grown for its flowers, but it also makes an ideal potted plant for indoor winter use. Another new variety, ‘A.S. Grolau’, or ‘Windowsill Chives’, is a Swiss introduction developed for greenhouse or windowsill production. ‘Grolau’ has very thick dark green leaves with a great strong flavour and is most productive when cut continually. ‘Garlic Chives’, a more flat leafed introduction from Japan, has white rather than pink flowers and has the added value of combining a garlic flavour.
Most chives are started by seed, or as in the case of sterile flowered varieties, like ‘Profusion’, by division. They are perennials but should be divided every three years. To keep them growing, you should not let them flower, or if you do, cut the plants back hard after flowering to let them flush out again. They are best left out in the garden year round in a well drained location. Chives are tough little plants that are hardy to zone three. They require little in the way of fertilizers other than organically rich soils, but in containers, I would top dress them with 14-14-14 to keep those rich green leaves coming. Use several varieties in your garden for different flavourings and flowers and for continuous production. They are a garden must and can go outside now as long as your new plants have been properly hardened for mid-March and April frosts.