Fresh chives add an oniony kick to just about any dish, from salads to omelets to soups. Chives are easy to grow in the garden, and can also be found growing wild in many places.
Chives have been a part of the human diet for nearly 5,000 years. They are native to Asia, and were probably first used by the Chinese, and later the ancient Greeks. The first European settlers in North America brought chives from their herb gardens in the old world to grow in their new homes. In North America chives quickly spread, until they are now common in Alaska, the Yukon, and the west coast, as well as New Mexico and Arizona.
Wild chive, allium schoenoprasum, is a member of the lily family. It is also known as onion grass or garden chive. It can be found in meadows and open country, particularly on grassy slopes. It is easily recognized by its long, narrow, hollow leaves and, in season, their purple-pink, onion-shaped buds that bloom into a small petaled blossom that resembles a purple clover. The key identifier is its onion smell. On a breezy day, chive hunters often follow their nose rather than looking for chives! Honeybees also seem to like chive blossoms, and might lead an observant person to hidden chive patches in the wild.
The whole chive plant is edible. When harvesting the leaves, take a scissors and cut the tender stalks two inches above the soil. These will continue to grow, so remember where you found your wild chives if they are conveniently near your home! Avoid the woodier stalks that are forming bulbs. They are edible, but they're less pleasant to eat than the tender shoots. Chives are prolific enough that you can be selective in your harvesting.
In the early spring look for bunches of bright green spears that look like a fresh patch of round-bladed grass, starting at about half an inch high, growing to about a foot and a half as the season progresses. They are often one of the earlier plants to grow in the spring, appearing about the same time crocuses do. In summer, the distinctive buds bloom. The flowers have a stronger onion taste than the leaves, and can be quite intense. Onion lovers often use them to decorate and flavor tossed salads and quiches.
In early spring, and again in the autumn, the wild chive bulb can be dug up and used like a miniature onion. If used this way, be certain that you have found wild chives, and not its somewhat similar cousin, death camass (Zygadenus elegans). The key to differentiating chive bulbs from death camass is the odor. Death camass does not smell like onions, chives do. As the name suggests, death camass should not be eaten! It isn't likely you'll make a mistake in identifying, but care should be taken to avoid mixing the two plants.
Whether wild or homegrown, chives are about the simplest way to spice up a dish, and are well worth having on hand.