Botanical Name: Allium schoenoprasum
Species: A. schoenoprasum
(French) : Ail civitte
(Old French) : Petit poureau
Part Used in medicine : The Herb.
Habitat: The Chive is said to be a native of Britain, it 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.’
Allium schoenoprasum is a hardy perennial plant. 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.
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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. 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 thrive in well-drained soil, rich in organic matter, with a pH of 6-7 and full sun. They can be grown from seed and mature in summer, or early the following spring. 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. After at least four weeks, the young shoots should be ready to be planted out. They are also easily propagated by division.
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 2–5 cm. 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
Chives are cultivated both for their culinary uses and their ornamental value; the violet flowers are often used in ornamental dry bouquets.
Chives are grown for their scapes, which are used for culinary purposes as a flavoring herb, and provide a somewhat milder flavor than those of other Allium species.
Chives have a wide variety of culinary uses, such as in traditional dishes in France and Sweden, among others. 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 and Germany, 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 medicinal properties of chives are similar to those of garlic, but weaker; the faint effects in comparison with garlic are probably the main reason for their limited use as a medicinal herb. Containing numerous organosulfur compounds such as allyl sulfides and alkyl sulfoxides, chives are reported to have a beneficial effect on the circulatory system. They also have mild stimulant, diuretic, and antiseptic properties. As chives are usually served in small amounts and never as the main dish, negative effects are rarely encountered, although digestive problems may occur following overconsumption.
Chives are also rich in vitamins A and C, contain trace amounts of sulfur, and are rich in calcium and iron.
Retzius also describes how farmers would plant chives between the rocks making up the borders of their flowerbeds, to keep the plants free from pests (such as Japanese beetles). The growing plant repels unwanted insect life, and the juice of the leaves can be used for the same purpose, as well as fighting fungal infections, mildew and scab.
Its flowers are attractive to bees, which are important for gardens with an abundance of plants in need of pollination.
The Romans believed chives could relieve the pain from sunburn or a sore throat.
Romanian Gypsies have used chives in fortune telling. It was believed that bunches of dried chives hung around a house would ward off disease and evil