The botanical name for chives is Allium, after the botanical family, schoeonoprasum. The latter word is derived from the Greek schoinos, meaning rush, and prason, meaning leek. When the herb first reached medieval Europe from China, where it had been eaten for 3,000 years, it was known as “rush-leek.” The word “chives” probably originates with the French word cive, which in turn is derived from the Latin cepa, meaning onion.
Chives, unlike their great cousin, garlic, have minimal medicinal use. As with many herbs they are anti-fungal and the oil of chives has been used to reduce blood pressure, although both onions and garlic are far more effective in this role. In Asia, chives are recommended to treats colds, flu and chest congestion.
Their anti-fungal and insecticide properties make chives a useful companion plant in the garden. Reputedly they check mildew and black spot on roses and scab on apples. They also chase away aphids and Japanese beetles. The only threat to chives is from snails and slugs when the herb is young.
Gardening books vary in their advice on growing chives. Some recommend full sun while others suggest partial shade. Our experience is that the herb tends to grow lusher when not exposed to full sun. Unlike most herbs however, chives like a moist soil that is slightly acidic and they are heavy feeders, particularly of nitrogen and potassium. If these minerals are not replaced with manure, compost or fish emulsion, the leaves will turn yellow.
Chives can be grown from seed, but young plants, bought, begged, or borrowed will give you faster results. This perennial herb (to zone 3) needs to be divided every few years anyway, so gardeners should be keen to share. Grow some chives in pots which can be brought indoors come the fall. This way you can continue your culinary clipping on into winter. One species of chives, the strong-flavored Grolau, has been cultivated especially for indoor growing and produces best when constantly cut.
Chives thrive on habitual snipping once the plants have reached a height of six inches or more. Cut them about half an inch from the soil, but don’t clear-cut them. They seem to do better if some leaves are left. If allowed to flower, the leaves will lose some of their flavor, but the purple flowers (garlic chives – a flat leafed variety – have white flowers) are beautiful in the garden and they make an attractive, nutritious, and tasteful addition to salads. They also add a beautiful colour and flavor to herb vinegars.
Chives are very nutritious. While one Tbsp. of the herb contains only one calorie, it furnishes two mg. of calcium, 0.05 mg. of iron, 192 IU of vitamin A and 2.4 mg. of vitamin C. It is also rich in phosphorus, sulfur, and pectin.
In the kitchen, chives’ mild peppery onion flavor makes them a hit in almost any dish except dessert. Chives have to be used fresh. When frozen or dried they lose most of their flavor, although when dried the flowers add elegance to any arrangement of everlastings.
The following two recipes are both good substitutes for the usual rice or potatoes with either vegetarian or meat based dishes.
Herbed Chickpea Pancakes
- 1¼ cups of chickpea flour
- ¾ cup of water
- ½ cup of chives, chopped fine
- ½ cup of fresh cilantro, chopped fine
- 1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 Tbsp. fresh ginger root, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (or use garlic chives)
- ¼ tsp. cayenne
- 1 tsp. salt.
Blend the chickpea flour, cayenne, and salt, then add the water and mix thoroughly. Add the chives, garlic, cilantro, ginger, and tomato and stir. If the consistency is too thick or thin, add more water or chickpea flour respectively. Lightly oil a large frying pan and heat to medium high. Spoon enough batter into the pan for each pancake to be about four to five inches in diameter. Cook for a couple of minutes each side or until well done.
Sweet Potatoes with Chive and Ginger Butter
- 4 medium to large sweet potatoes
- ¼ lb. soft butter
- 1 inch long piece of fresh ginger root, grated
- 4 Tbsp. fresh chives, chopped
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Pinch of cayenne
- Salt to taste
After washing the sweet potatoes and pricking their skins, cook them in a lightly oiled pan for 60-75 minutes at 375ºF or until done. Mix all the other ingredients and serve on the sweet potatoes after cutting them in half lengthwise.