Garlic chives, also called Chinese chives and oriental garlic, is a plant grown both for its edible foliage and its ornamental value and you find them in more and more gardens.
Although garlic chives belongs to the same genus as regular chives, Allium, which they share with both the onion (A. cepa) and true garlic (A. sativum), garlic chives are not that closely related to garden chives ( A. schoenoprasum), but rather gets their common name from the fact that their leaves are used in cooking much as we use chives. As for the “garlic” part, garlic chives taste very much like garlic, although their flavor is less intense, and indeed they are used as a garlic substitute in cooking.
As for the names Chinese chives and oriental garlic, they refer to over 4000 years of use in Chinese and oriental cooking. It is believed that Marco Polo originally introduced this plant to the Occident, but garlic chives essentially remained a specimen plant in botanical collections. The rediscovery of their culinary use in the West is quite recent.
And what a beautiful plant! The flattened arching leaves (they remind me narcissus leaves) emerge in the spring and form dense and attractive clumps for much of the summer. Then umbels of starry white flowers sprout on 15 to 24 inch (40 to 60 cm) stems in late summer and early fall. Not only do flowers appear a time when our gardens often need an extra burst of bloom, but they last a long time: 2 months, sometimes even more! In my zone 3 garden, garlic chives are often still in bloom when the first snow falls.
Easy to Grow
Garlic chives are very simple to grow, as easy as regular chives… and who has trouble with them?
Any well-drained soil in sun or part shade will do. You can easily multiply them by dividing an existing clump. This is best done in spring or fall, but in fact, you can divide them almost any time the ground isn’t frozen. If you buy a plant (and it’s quite readily available in the herb section of most nurseries), you can plant it in any season too. Seeds sown outdoors or indoors in the spring germinate quickly and give plants that readily bloom the second year.
Garlic chives are also very hardy: to zone 3, even zone 2 in sheltered spots, yet they also tolerate hot climates up to zone 10. In mild climates, their foliage is evergreen. They die back in the fall in cold climates and are replaced in spring.
One Sour Note
Despite their beauty and utility, garlic chives can be very invasive, not because of their rhizomes (they form a thick clump that widens over time without spreading), but due to their shameless self-sowing. Indeed, they tend to sprout here and there in open spaces, especially in vegetable beds where we tend to leave a lot of bare soil. Of course, the young plants are easy to eliminate: just pull them out, but still, their control is additional task for the gardener.
To prevent self-sowing, you can always remove the flowers as they begin to fade, thus before the seed capsules mature, and therefore prevent the seeds from ever forming, but there is an even more laidback method. Just mulch just your garden heavily. That way the seeds simply won’t be able to germinate.
Another possibility is to harvest the flowers for cut flower arrangements. That too ensures that no seed capsules mature. The cut flowers themselves are pleasantly scented; it’s the cut stem that delivers a garlicky smell upon harvest. Plunge their base into in cold water and the smell will quickly dissipate.
In the Kitchen
I’ll leave any recipes to real chefs. Suffice it to say that it’s the leaves of garlic chives that are usually used in cooking. Just chop them up and use them when you need a bit of a garlicky tang. However, the flower stems, flowers and flower buds are just as delicious. You can harvest the leaves up to 3 or 4 times the first year and pretty much at will the following years, since removing them doesn’t seem to harm the plant’s health and it quickly grows replacements. You can also dry them for winter use.
Garlic chives: beautiful, delicious and easy to grow. You might want to try them in your own garden!