Usually sold as a culinary herb,
Years ago, I bought a small pot of garlic chives, (Allium tuberosum) at a local nursery in the herb section. The tag was encouraging; a hardiness listing of zones 3 through 9 meant they would be happy in my zone 7 garden. They like sun but aren't too picky about soil. I planted them in my herb bed, along with the more common round-leafed chives. That year, I helped myself to many trimmings of tender, flattened, oniony-garlicky tasting foliage. I used the snipped leaves anywhere I wanted a touch of onion taste and fresh green color, like in scrambled eggs or on baked potatoes. Later in summer, edible flower buds began to appear. I have seen chive flower buds sold in oriental produce displays. Indeed, "Chinese chives" is another name for this plant.
Garlic Chives is also a dependable ornamental plant,
Actually, I find this Allium more vigorous than the traditional purple-flowered chives, Allium schoenoprasum. New leaves continue to grow through the summer, forming a pretty grass-like clump.
This perennial herb expands slowly each year. After a few years, you may want to split your clump into several smaller ones. These robust plants will hardly notice. Just be prepared to use a sharp tool and a little muscle on the thickly matted roots. I use small clumps of Chinese chives as a garden border.
Little did I know when I first bought them, garlic chives is a dependable flowering plant. In late summer, the clump will send up flower stalks. You'll see stiff, tubular flower stalks growing taller than the flat leaves. Then tiny white star shaped florets open to form a 3 inch hemisphere. These starry white clusters stand above the arching foliage on 18-inch stems. I love these flowers appearing faithfully for me in August, a time of the summer when little else can endure the heat, much less flower. Even severe drought won't stop the blooms, although it could cause some yellowed leaf tips.
When the blooms have matured, faded and dried to a papery brown, they make a sturdy and striking dried flower. Leave them in the garden or cut them to put in a vase.
and beneficial insects love them too.
While I like the flowers of garlic chives, they are absolute ambrosia to many pollen and nectar eating insects we actually want to attract to our gardens. Who doesn't enjoy the sight of a butterfly or skipper sipping nectar? Various wasps, flies, and beetles also visit flowers like those of Chinese chives. The adults of many of these "beneficial insects" feed on the pollen of small flowers. Then they produce larvae which prey upon our tiny garden enemies. And bees that dine on your garlic chives will also pause to pollinate your vegetables, helping guarantee a good crop.
What about that "but?"
But Allium tuberosum has one nasty habit. It self-sows, vigorously. Without some yearly maintenance, chives will sprout up all over your garden I learned the hard way when a grove of tiny garlic chive "saplings" greeted me one spring. Nobody wants more weeding to do! How do I cope? As the flowers fade, I bunch the juicy stalks together and cut them off above the leaves. That green seed goes in the trash can.
Left in place, the seedheads will become brown and papery, and split open to drop numerous black seeds.
Of course, you can let those flowers mature. You'll get lots of seeds to share or plant elsewhere, and you can save the dried heads for winter interest in the garden or use in dried arrangements.
Garlic chives, Chinese chives, Allium tuberosum- this plant of many names and many uses is a good one to include in most gardens. Try them! I expect you'll want others to experience its herb-foliage-flower-beneficial insect attractant qualities just as I do. Just be sure to tell them about that "but."
Photo credits to Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist) for the ready-to-use monarch photo, dried flower photo, and bees on flower photo. Jill also gave me the seeds and seed packet which I photographed. The other photos were taken by me in my garden.
Sincere thanks to Jill also for her encouragement and help in getting me started, and finished, with my first article.
Sombke, Laurence, Beautiful Easy Herbs. Rodale Books, Emmaus, 1997.
Bradley, Fern Marshall and Barbara W. Ellis, editors. Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale Press, Emmaus, 1997
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 14, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)