Chinese Chives

Short version:

These perennials have flat, grass like leaves that radiate from the base in an upright manner. They spread slowly and grow in clumps. They can be grown from seed or the bulbs/rhizomes can be transplanted to start a patch. They thrive at the opposite time of the year to three cornered leeks so work well grown in conjunction. They taste like sweet mild garlic.

I have been around Chinese chives , also called garlic chives – allium tuberosum – my entire life. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents, as well as my mum grew these in their gardens. Each single plant looks like a succulent wide leaf grass with the leaves stemming from the base. They will grow in a clump.  

How to grow

They can be grown from seed in little pots around April/May and then planted out as small clumps. It’s written in lots of websites that they self seed invasively, but in my own experience the seeds don’t germinate particularly easily. They also lose viability within the year. This may be why they don’t spread very fast. An easier way to get started is to ask someone who already has them to give you a dozen or so spare little plants. They are perennial so they come back every year and can keep growing for decades. The plants my mum has have continued to thrive even after 30 years. It would be hard to know though whether they are still the original plants or whether the oldest plants have died off years ago but have been replaced over the years by self propagating itself some replacements plants. They don’t run rampant like three cornered leeks, which can fill a whole bed within a couple of years. The Chinese chives (from what I’ve seen in my and my family’s gardens) will stay rather local and spread much much slower.  They are however a great plant to grow in conjunction with three cornered leeks.

The three cornered leeks thrive in the winter. They start in October and are in full swing by November when the Chinese chives are beginning to lose their umph. The three cornered leeks flower in April and die back soon after. This is when the Chinese Chives are filling out. As you can see from the photo they look very similar with the broad, flat leaves. The three cornered leeks have the middle rib and have the triangular cross section, whereas the the Chinese chives are very flat.

They like sun but grow fine in shade. This year the runner beans have completely shaded them and they’re still looking fine (picture at the start of the blog – you can even see that the nasturtiums are trying to overrun them).

The flowers grow on tall stalks that get tough as the flowers open. The flowers are lovely and don’t look out of place in a flower bed.  They are also loved by bees.

How to harvest

You can chop the whole thing off at the base before they send their flower shoots up. This is the quickest way and generally how my mum harvests. I, myself, often pull the thickest, juiciest, individual outer leaves to give the inner leaves a bit more time to grow, by severing with a thumbnail.

The flower stem with the bud on top can be harvested, as scapes, before the bud opens.

The flowers can also be harvested and look lovely in a salad, but by this point the stem will be too tough.

How they taste

They have a sweet, garlicky taste. They are excellent lightly stir fried or added to dishes at the last minute. We often eat them as a spring onion substitute in crispy duck pancakes. When they are at their fullest and juiciest, we sometimes stir fry as much as we can collect as a side dish. If they’re chopped up into centimetre long bits, they can be dropped into piping hot soups or congee (a Chinese rice porridge) to add flavour and colour. The scapes are fabulous just lightly fried in a pan.

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