Garlic chives: Ornamental, tasty, sometimes weedy

Is it a weed or a garden plant? Garlic chives are among those plants - paulownia tree, Jerusalem artichoke, mint and anise hyssop are others - that can parade under either guise.

Garlic chives come from a good enough family, the onion family. There is one definitely weedy member in this family, wild garlic, but many other kin are valuable garden plants. Star-of-Persia, giant onion and lily leek are among those that light up flower gardens with starbursts of blossoms. And the wide, purple, mottled leaves of Turkestan onion add as much to a flower garden as the flowers themselves do, clustered together like fuzzy tennis balls above the leaves.

To eat and to look at

Onions of many kinds, leeks, shallots, garlic and chives all provide delectable fare. As its name indicates, the flavor of garlic chives is more robust than that of chives.

In China, garlic chives leaves that are blanched from sunlight for a couple of weeks before harvest beneath an overturned flowerpot are a delicacy over fried noodles.

Besides good flavor, there's no question as to garlic chives' beauty. The thin leaves rise from the ground in clumps like those of chives, but garlic chives' leaves are flattened and folded rather than round and hollow. And rather than being topped by fuzzy, pink heads, like chives, garlic chives' flower stalks are capped by small, star-shaped, white flowers clustered together to create a larger star.

Garlic chives flowers over a long period in late summer, and are also decorative dried.

Uh, oh

Those flowers are followed by seeds, and that's when garlic chives show a troublesome side: The plant unabashedly spreads its seeds everywhere.

No problem, you may remark: Cilantro and dill also are prolific self-seeders. Yes, they are. And you can easily yank out the excess or errant seedlings of those two herbs. A quick tug removes any problem plant, roots and all.

Give garlic chives a similar yank, though, and the strappy leaves either slip through your fingers or snap off. The thick roots - which also spread, but nothing like the seedlings - remain in the ground to re-sprout.

Right plant, right place

I planted garlic chives a number of years ago and became uneasy when it started to spread around the garden willy nilly. Visions of my garden given over to this plant prompted me to weed out every last trace of it.

The plant then showed up a hundred feet from the original planting. At this site, though, against a rock wall and beneath some dense shrubs, its spread is kept in check. And a sweep of garlic chives there looks pretty.

If you are bold enough to grow garlic chives, promise to rigorously cut back spent flowers before they mature seeds if you want to contain growth. Beyond that, garlic chives are an easy and pretty plant to grow for the flower, vegetable or herb garden.

Like other members of the onion family, it thrives best in full sun and moderately rich soil.

One way to start a planting of garlic chives is to beg a division from a friend or neighbor's clump. Dig up a section, replant it and keep it moist until established.

Seed is another way to begin a planting. As you might guess, the seed sprouts readily - in about a week.

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