Chives are those plants that are classified botanically and horticulturally as Allium schoenoprasum. There are other alliums that have "chive" as part of their full common or selling names, such as garlic chives (Chinese chives) which are Allium tuberosum, and Syrian chives (Siberian chives, blue chives) which are Allium nutans. They are not however chives.
Chives are usually referred to in the plural because they are a clump of individual bulbs that have grown from single seeds (like spring onions) or divided in cultivation (like shallots). It is this latter process that increases the size of the clumps of chives as the years go by. They a re herbaceous perennials, which means the tops die down in the autumn sending all the plant's strength into the underground bulb to reappear again in the spring as the new season is warming up. They appear quite early but give them a chance to do some photosynthesizing before you start cutting to add flavour to your salad. Chives typically eventually grow to 30cm, or more, high and 30cm spread depending on the age of the clump of bulbs. However there are natural forms and garden cultivars that grow less tall and may have a more lax growth habit. There are forms that have thinner and very thin leaves. Flower colours can vary between mauve, purple, cerise, pink, coral, white, almost silver and even flowers replaced with small bulbils, sometimes called grass in other alliums. The size of the flowerhead can also vary in size particularly with the white flowered forms which often have much smaller flowers. In the wild colours can vary considerably as well, but here as in the garden the predominant colour is purple.
Chives are hardy in the UK, as long as they are not in waterlogged soil. However they do like a moist soil so in very dry areas they may not do well without additional watering. Like mint and parsley they are more suited to the vegetable garden than the dryer condition preferred by the Mediterranean herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage. It is often advised to dig up your clump of chives every three years and divide the "plant" into smaller clumps and replant, to allow the group of individual bulbs more room to grow. Water well when replanting and "improve" the soil while you're at it. Add some fertiliser to the soil if replanting in the same place, but be sparing. Organic matter in some form is a better option as this often also contains small amounts of plant nutrients.
For culinary use flowering is a mixed blessing. The flowers themselves are edible and add different colours to salads and herb vinegars. On the other hand the stalk of the flower is hard and not of much use compared to the leaves and the plant will put it's energy into making seeds and not nice new soft leaves. If you want the leaves for culinary use remove the flowers and stalks before or just after flowering. This often means cutting lack the whole plant to ground level, so it is a good idea to give the plant a liquid feed in with a good watering to help the regrowth. New chive leaves will appear astonishingly quickly.
Chives can self-seed all over the place so it is good practice to cut the plants back anyway when flowers fade, unless of course you want to collect the seeds!
Most Garden Centres, Nurseries and even many Herb specialists only have the common purple flowered standard species of chives. If you are interested in a pink or white flowered form, or a thinner leaved form, you will need to search for them. The RHS website has a section called "Find a Plant" (basically the old RHS Plant Finder online version) which lists cultivars that are being sold by the Nurseries that have informed them of what they plan to have for sale. Some entries have no source listed because the nursery has stopped supplying the cultivar. Some are listed as having a source but you will find some are no longer available, or at least not this year. This section of the RHS website is undergoing major redevelopment at the moment so it may be worth revisiting in the autumn.
If the plant you buy from your Garden Centre, or mail order from a Nursery, has been grown from seed sown that year, it is not advisable to start cutting for kitchen use until the following year when the bulbs will be larger and able to recover more easily.
If you want to talk chives with me, please do, firstname.lastname@example.org .
|Copyright © David Barrett. Last revised 12th August 2021|