The ordinary yet extraordinary, chive

The Ordinary yet Extraordinary, Chive

Morris Lemire

Morris Lemire explains why it’s better to grow your own, chives that is. This common and hardy culinary planet keeps on giving throughout spring.


The chive plant follows the spring melt with such annual regularity that we take it for granted, like salt and pepper.

Yet, to every gardener worthy of a trowel, chives are elegant and beautiful, among the first of the eatable greens of spring and, therefore, dependable, anticipated and fallen upon with relish.

There are about ten species of onions from which hundreds of varieties of the allium family are derived. Chives are in this top ten. It is a variable species, the only member of common garden alliums that still grows in the wild, hence the name wild chives. Indigenous peoples across northern North America harvested and traded all members of the onion family; whether allium schoenoprasum, the common garden variety, was among them is not yet clear, because botanists can’t agree whether it is native to North America, or introduced and naturalized.

Chives are the smallest and most delicate plant in the onion family. These qualities make them most suitable in creamy sauces, soups and egg dishes. It is a plant of contrasts, delicate in flavour, hardy in growth, a perennial that survives an Edmonton winter and lasts all through the growing season.

You can find chives in the grocery chains, but they are usually in one of those little plastic clam-shells, costing $3 for a meagre amount that is often well past their bbd. As Eileen Woodhead reminds us in Early Canadian Gardening, “chives contain a volatile oil that dissipates during drying so that the leaves lost their potency soon after cutting.”

It’s better to grow your own.

If you have access to even a small patch of garden, or room for a small pot, you can grow this herb. They can be started from seed indoors and planted out when the soil warms, or, propagated from a clump as small as your thumb. Many households have a clump of bulbs growing somewhere; just ask your granny. You’ll be surprised how willing most people are to share. Or, go to Arch Greenhouses on 97 Street (or your local nursery). Arch uses predatory insects as a biological control regime, so no neonicotinoids or insecticides are used. They will happily give you all the advice you may need on chives.

Chives spread slowly and need never take over if you do this: in the fall deadhead the flowers, and in the spring as they appear, harvest new shoots with the flip of a trowel. I have a main garden clump and I check for new outliers; these are the ones I dig out first to eat, or I pot before bringing them indoors for the winter. They have shallow roots and during a dry spell they will require watering. If you put them in a pot outside on a sunny step or balcony, water twice a week.

Snip your chives as you need them from the outer edges, leaving the middle to produce flowers. A major study found chives to be one of the top ten producers of nectar. Bees love chive flowers and so will you. The flowers are edible and are lovely in a salad.

Here is a gardener’s trick, once the plant has flowered, in pot or not, give it a brush-cut. Trim all the green hollow leaves right back to ground level; water well and they will pop right back up. With a bit of luck, a second blooming will happen just when the bees are getting ready for winter.

Chives last from April to October, so what are we going to do with these highly nutritious members of the onion family? Luckily, they are very versatile. They make an omelet hum, round out a white fish sauce and they give many a pasta dish a flourish of fresh green flavour.

What you do with chives depends, in part, on the calendar month. In the spring you may want a mild onion flavour in salad, but later into the fall, you may want to use them as a garnish in vichyssoise. Isn’t that a lovely name for what is basically cold potato soup, with leeks of course, double onion. The point is, how you use chives may depend on what time of year it is, which influences what you cook. Also, what is your family heritage? My mother was of Irish decent and she put chives in just about everything potato—potato salad, potato pancakes, mashed, smashed, you name it, plus devilled eggs, tuna salad and on grilled fish.

Some restaurants recognize the importance of fresh garden herbs. Café Linnea grows these in pots and raised beds, including chives, which they use in garnishes, flavouring and in every other creative way, like plating, that fits the dish or their mood. Fresh, locally grown and inexpensive seems to be catching on.

Morris loves Edmonton, where he gardens, cooks, eats, drinks wine and writes about it.

Chive Dressing

“This recipe is something you can play around with, depending on your taste and the dish you are going to pair it with. You can change the volume, or the flavour; just taste as you go. For example, you could add a fist full of other herbs, like parsley or basil, a splash more oil, another squeeze of lemon and you would have a sauce to go with barbecued salmon.” Morris Lemire

Lightly bruise a garlic clove. Rub the garlic on the inside of the mixing bowl. (Depending on how much garlic flavour you like, you can leave the clove in to marinate with the rest of the ingredients.)

2 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 T extra virgin olive oil
pinch dry mustard powder
pinch hot pepper (add more depending on the dish and personal preference)
1 t honey (optional)
¼ c chopped chives
kosher salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, to taste

Put everything through a food processor or immersion blender and strain out the chunky bits. Or, leave them in. Then it really works with grilled flank steak cut on the bias. If you are dressing a kale salad, use your hands to lightly massage the dressing into the kale about 30 minutes before serving. Add the other bits, orange slices perhaps, just before serving.

Serves 2-4.