Chives, the Little Onion

Chives, the Little Onion

Chives, a member of the onion family, have been in use for nearly 5,000 years. Native to the Orient, they were probably used first by the Chinese. The ancient Greeks followed, and by the sixteenth century they had earned a place in English gardens. When the colonists came to America, they brought chives along with them, along with other kitchen and medicinal herbs. Today, chives have earned a place in just about every kitchen in the United States.

History of Chives

History tells us that Marco Polo discovered chives in his travels, and brought them back to Europe. They have been used there ever since. Chives, a member of the onion family, didn't find a lot of uses as a medicinal herb, unlike their cousin garlic. However, this member of the onion family was thought to have magical powers. It was believed that chives could drive away evil spirits and disease. Chives were hung in bundles in the home to protect the inhabitants. The Romani gypsies used chives in fortune telling. Romans believed that chives had the power to relieve pain.

Medicinal Uses of Chives

Chives have only a small place in medicinal history. The Romans believed it cured sunburn and pain from a sore throat. Chives contain an oil rich in sulfer, as do all members of the onion family. Oil of sulfur is an antiseptic, and helps lower blood pressure. The problem with chives as a medicine is that large quantities must be consumed to reap any medicinal benefit. Chives are used to stimulate appetite and promote digestion. They are given when appetite is off due to a cold. Chives are often put in salads and cooked dishes for medicinal purposes. They are said to contain health-promoting compounds that are thought to help prevent cancer and treat high blood pressure. As with any other herb, these properties are not absolutely confirmed by science.

Culinary Use of Chives

Chives are best known for their use in cooking. What is a baked potato without sour cream and chives? Their taste is much like a sweet mild onion, and complements potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, corn, peas, tomatoes, poultry and shellfish. It is used in creamy sauces, and works well with cheeses and egg dishes. Soups and stews are enhanced by the flavor of chives. Chives are always added at the very end of the cooking process.

Don't overlook the flowers, either. The flowers are often used in salads, as a garnish, and look beautiful dried. The flowers also go well in herb vinegar. Chives can be used for any recipe calling for the green part of scallions. It is available in all major grocery stores, and can be found fresh or frozen.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Rachel Klein adds, “Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) is a variety of chives known for its garlic flavor. This variety has flat leaves and fragrant white flowers. It can be used just like regular chives in the kitchen.”


Allium schoenoprasum is the smallest member of the onion family. It can be started from seed by sowing ½-inch deep in flats or pots. They need to be in a warm environment of at least 60 degrees to germinate. They require darkness and constant moisture to germinate. Chives germinate slowly--in about 2 to 3 weeks you will see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge. When about 4 weeks old, they can be transplanted to the garden.

TIP: Rachel suggests, “Chives can be used as a companion plant in flower gardens to keep insects away, but avoid planting your chives near onions. This may encourage the infestation of the onion fly, who will feast on either of these plants.”

Chives, unlike many herbs, require rich soil to thrive. They need plenty of organic matter with a pH of 6.0-7.0. Chives require plenty of sunshine, but will grow well in partial shade. Plant in clumps of 4 or 5 in well-drained soil, keeping clumps at least 8 inches apart. They should be separated at least every 3 years and divided to perform well. Division is best done in the spring.

TIP: Rachel adds, “Chives grow well as indoor houseplants as long as they are getting enough sunlight. They may begin to die back during the darker winter months, but should begin to grow again come spring.”

Chives need to be kept moist, so water frequently during periods of less than 1 inch of rain per week. Water deeply, to prevent dryness around the roots. A light mulch of ground-up leaves or compost will help the soil to retain moisture.

TIP: Rachel advises, “Over-fertilization can be detrimental to chives. If, however, your plants begin to look weak due to over-harvesting, a light application of 5-10-5 fertilizer can be applied each spring. Use a liquid fertilizer at 1/2 the recommended dose on the package.”

Harvesting and Storage

Don't make the mistake of just snipping off the tips of this herb for use in cookery. Cut leaving only 1 to 2 inches of leaf above the base, and they will regenerate quickly.

Chives can be snipped after they establish and at least 6 inches tall. Don't cut them all back--they need a few leaves to keep growing.

TIP: Rachel suggests, “Start with the outer leaves and snip inwards, using scissors. Snip the flower stalks off at the base after they are done flowering to prevent them from going to seed and becoming less productive.”

Flowers and stems are generally best if used fresh. They do not store well. However, they can be snipped into small pieces and frozen in plastic containers in a pinch.

To promote healthy growth, cut back chive plants when leaves exceed 6 inches in height.

In the Kitchen

Use as you would any onion. Their taste is sweet but not overpowering. They are better used as a garnish or a condiment for such things as potatoes and even pizza. Try these things:

  • Saute 1 or 2 cloves of chopped garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Add a pint of cherry tomatoes. Saute for 2 more minutes. At the end of cooking, add a couple of tablespoons of freshly cut and chopped chives. Toss well, and serve immediately.
  • Crumble the flower heads in your salad for a unique and beautiful splash of color.

Chives are almost a standard herb in any garden. They are hardy, are a perennial, and have few requirements. Try growing them today.