Yard Nature: Free Chives

[Bagel from Bruegger’s, china from Spode, “wild chives” from the Mayflower]

I grew up eating what Mom called wild onion. It showed up in the yard as free food. The long, hollow leaves were good to chew, as were the bulbs, but those were too intense to eat raw unless cheese and crackers were involved.

I would have used them with bagels, but bagels didn’t exist until high school, when my parents brought home a bagful of “Jewish bread” from a trip to Atlanta. I even had a sleepover to celebrate, where my friends scarfed new treats while watching Psycho on another new treat: a VCR.

As a homeowner, I’ve made up for lost time by using snippets of wild onion on our bagels ‘n’ schmear for over 25 years. They eat better than cultivated chives: thicker but softer, milder. 

If I could go back in time and not plant the single packet of chive seeds in the garden that is now wall-to-wall chives, I would.

Why plant chives when better-tasting and better-behaved versions are already there?

WHERE?

You’ve probably got wild onion in your yard, too. I see it in the neighborhood lawns that aren’t new sod; or in lawns people just mow—not poison with herbicide: our old and surprisingly biodiverse mosaics of weeds, wildflowers, and grasses.
If a smell of onion chases the lawnmower, this is why.

Wild onion in a surprisingly diverse mosaic of old lawn

I’ve been telling lawn-lover neighbors not to fight them but to eat them. Or, to put them in the garden and then eat them.

I.D.

But it wasn’t till today I decided to figure out what these plants are.
What’s the species? Are they native here?

Our common, native wild onion is Allium canadense, but this isn’t it, and mine is way more common. What I’ve got is Allium vineale. It’s from Europe, and probably came over with the dandelions colonists brought.
Both were useful as food and medicine. 

A. vineale has hollow tubes as leaves. A. canadense has flat straps. This is the quickest way to distinguish them, but there are other differences outlined in the link below.

“Frequent state-wide” in fields, roadsides, and other disturbed areas says Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee. “Significant threat” says the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council.

My ID doesn’t change my advice:
if these plants irk you in a lawn, transfer them to a garden bed, but definitely put them to use in the kitchen.
You might as well. They are nearly impossible to kill. Even if you dig, you’re bound to miss a few bulbs, and then the tall, hollow spears will be back next year.

Unlike VCRs, wild onions are here to stay.


Notes:

1) Foragers, do not harvest wild onion leaves on sidewalks or in yards beside a sidewalk. Why? The leaves are taller than surrounding grass, and thus make a popular target for any passing (and pissing) dog.

2) Allium vineale has many common names: wild onion, wild chive, wild garlic, onion grass, crow garlic, to name a few.
What do *you* call it?


Wild garlic vs Wild onion comparison pdf at Michigan State University.

Allium vineale description / pics at GoBotany.

Cold-Weather Foraging: Field Garlic (Allium vineale) at Mother Earth News


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Bio:
Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, Stonecrop Review, The Fourth River and other journals.

2 thoughts on “Yard Nature: Free Chives

  1. I was thrilled to find chives growing all over our property when we moved to South Carolina a few years ago. They only grow in spring and autumn, when I often roam the lawn, scissors in hand, snipping some to flavor my dinner. Sadly, the best ones seem to grow in the fenced-in part of the yard, which we call “the dog park.”

    After a bit of research, I believe the local variety is garlic chives. But no matter their name, I love them!

    1. To “roam the lawn, scissors in hand” is so satisfying isn’t it? To eat stuff you didn’t plant, but on your own property. Hey, I wonder if you could transplant some of the good chives from the dog area to a cleaner part of the yard?

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