A Castle Bromwich Herbiary - Chives

A Castle Bromwich Herbiary - Chives

purple flower sinks ~
bumble bee lights on a chive ~
river of summer

Botanical: Allium schoenoprasum
Family: N.O. Liliaceae
(French) Ail civitte
(Old French) Petit poireau

The Chive is the smallest, though one of the finest-flavoured of the Onion variety, belonging to the botanical group of plants that goes under the name of Allium, which also includes Garlic, Leek and Shallot. 

Allium schoenoprasum - Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé ''Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Sc. Public Dom


Though said to be a native of Britain, the Chive is only very rarely found growing in an uncultivated state, and then only in the northern and western counties of England and Wales and in Oxfordshire. It grows in rocky pastures throughout temperate and northern Europe. De Candolle says: 'This species occupies an extensive area in the northern hemisphere. It is found all over Europe from Corsica and Greece to the south of Sweden, in Siberia as far as Kamschatka and also in North America. The variety found in the Alps is the nearest to the cultivated form.' Most probably it was known to the Ancients, as it grows wild in Greece and Italy. Dodoens figures it and gives the French name for it in his days: 'Petit poureau,' relating to its rush-like appearance. 

In present day French it is commonly called 'Ail civitte.' The Latin name of this species means 'Rush-Leek.' 

The plant is a hardy perennial. The bulbs grow very close together in dense tufts or clusters, and are of an elongated form, with white, rather firm sheaths, the outer sheath sometimes grey.

The slender leaves appear early in spring and are long, cylindrical and hollow, tapering to a point and about the thickness of a crowsquill. They grow from 6 to 10 inches high.

The flowering stem is usually nipped off with cultivated plants (which are grown solely for the sake of the leaves, or 'grass'), but when allowed to rise, it seldom reaches more than a few inches to at most a foot in height. It is hollow and either has no leaf or one leaf sheathing it below the middle. It supports a close globular head, or umbel, of purple flowers; the numerous flowers are densely packed together on separate, very slender little flower-stalks, shorter than the flowers themselves, which lengthen slightly as the fruit ripens, causing the heads to assume a conical instead of a round shape. 

Allium schoenoprasum. Photograph by Fornax.
The petals of the flowers are nearly half an inch long; when dry, their pale-purple colour, which has in Parts a darker flush, changes to rose-colour. The anthers (the pollen-bearing part of the flower) are of a bluish-purple colour. The seed-vessel, or capsule, is a little larger than a hemp seed and is completely concealed within the petals, which are about twice its length. The small seeds which it contains are black when ripe and similar to Onion seeds.

The flowers are in blossom in June and July, and in the most cold and moist situations will mature their seeds, though rarely allowed to do so under cultivation.

Chives can be found in Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens in various areas, usually in the borders around the Batty Langley Kitchen Garden. 


Seeds of ''Allium schoenoprasum''. Squares have a length of 5 mm. Photograph by Sarefo

Chives will grow in any ordinary garden soil, but will thrive in soil rich in organic matter, with a pH of 6-7 and full sun. Typically, chives need to be germinated at a temperature of 15 to 20°C (60-70°F) and kept moist. They can also be planted under a cloche or germinated indoors in cooler climates, then planted out later. Chives can be raised by seed, but are usually propagated by dividing the clumps in spring or autumn. 

In dividing the clumps, leave about six little bulbs together in a tiny clump, which will spread to a fine clump in the course of a year. Set the clumps from 9 inches to a foot apart each way. For a quick return, propagation by division of the bulb clumps is always to be preferred.

Chives are cultivated both for their culinary uses and their ornamental value; the violet flowers are often used in ornamental dry bouquets.

In cold regions, chives die back to the underground bulbs in winter, with the new leaves appearing in early spring. Chives starting to look old can be cut back to about 2–5cm. When harvesting, the needed number of stalks should be cut to the base. During the growing season, the plant will continually regrow leaves, allowing for a continuous harvest.

Chive seedlings sprouting. Photograph by Norman21

The green from the clumps can be cut three or four times in the season. When required for use, each clump may be cut in turn, fairly close to the ground. The leaves will soon grow again and be found more tender each time of cutting. By carefully cropping, the 'grass' can be obtained quite late in the season, until the early frosts come, when it withers up and disappears through the winter, pushing up again in the first warm days of February. For early crops, a little 'grass' can be forced on the clumps by placing cloches or a 'light' over them.

Beyond weeding between the clumps, no further care or attention is needed after division. Beds should be re-planted at least once in three or four years.

If it is desired to produce seed, grow two plantations, one for producing 'grass' for use, and the other to be left to flower and set seed, as you cannot get the two crops - 'grass' and seed, off the one set of plants. 

A clump of chives flowering. Photograph by Captain-tucker

Culinary Uses:

The Chive contains a pungent volatile oil, rich in sulphur, which gives them its distinctive smell and taste. Chive flowers are also edible, and can be used as a garnish or may be crystallised. Chives provide extra flavour salads - cut fresh and chopped fine, or sprinkled on sliced tomatoes.

They are also excellent in savoury omelettes, and may be chopped and boiled with potatoes that are to be mashed, or chopped fresh and sprinkled, just before serving, on mashed potatoes, both as a garnish and flavouring. They may also be put into soup, either dried, or freshly cut and finely chopped, and are a welcome improvement to homemade sausages, croquettes, etc., as well as an excellent addition to beefsteak puddings and pies.

Chives are also used in traditional dishes in France and Sweden. In his 1806 book Attempt at a Flora (Försök til en flora), Retzius describes how chives are used with pancakes, soups, fish and sandwiches. They are also an ingredient of the gräddfil sauce served with the traditional herring dish served at Swedish midsummer celebrations. The flowers may also be used to garnish dishes. In Poland, chives are served with quark cheese.

Chives are one of the "fines herbes" of French cuisine, which also include tarragon, chervil and/or parsley.
Chives can be found fresh at most markets year-round, making them readily available; they can also be dry-frozen without much impairment to the taste, giving home growers the opportunity to store large quantities harvested from their own gardens. The web is also replete with many intresting and entertaining recipes using chives.

Chive flower close-up. Public Domain.

Medicinal and Folklore:

The ancient Chinese are the first to documented using chives as long ago as 3000 years B.C. and Marco Polo is credited with bringing chives to Europe from China.

Romanian Gypsies have used chives in fortune telling.

It was believed that you should hang bunches of dried chives around your house to ward off disease and evil.
The Romans believed chives could relieve the pain from sunburn or a sore throat. They also believed that eating chives would increase blood pressure and acted as a diuretic. Medical sources do tend to discredit these claims though.

There you go: I managed to get through an article without referring to the Children's programme:


Whoops: Sorry...

Anyway, please come and visit our Chives in the herb gardens next time you visit us. I'm sure they'll be pleased to see you!

This article has been fabricated from several sources to whom grateful thanks are due:

Wikimedia Commons
Granma's Wisdom


Thanks are also due to Chris Hitchcock.

All photographs credited as stated and unless indicated otherwise, are subject to the Creative Commons ShareAlike unported 3.0 licence.

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