There is a lot of confusion out there about various chives and garlics. Identifying one from the other is actually quite simple, until we add other alliums to the list, then it can become very complicated. In this post I will look at the common ones and provide a simple way to correctly identify your plant. I’ll also include some cultural information.
Common Allium Names Are Confusing!
Why do we have all of this confusion? The main reason is that people insist on using common names for plants. Then they go off and invent local names that are not standardized in any way. What one person calls a chive is actually a garlic chive. Another uses the name onion chive which may mean the same thing or it may not.
Lets sort this out so we can communicate using botanical names. They are all in the genus Allium, so that part is easy.
Allium tuberosum is frequently called garlic chives. Other common names include Oriental garlic, Asian chives, Chinese chives, Chinese leeks.
Allium schoenoprasum, frequently called chives, is also called onion chives, and wild chives.
Allium sativum is garlic and is quite different from the above two alliums. A garlic scape is the flowering head of a garlic plant. A green garlic is an immature garlic, one that is harvested in spring before it can form garlic bulbs.
To keep things simple I will only look at the above three types of alliums.
Identification by Leaf Type
If the leaves originate from the crown of the plant and are flat, it is Allium tuberosum (garlic chives).
If the leaves originate from the crown of the plant and are round with a hollow center then it is Allium schoenoprasum (chives).
If the plant has a visible stem with leaves originating from the stem it is Allium sativum (garlic).
Identification by Flowers
If the flowers are white and bloom in late summer at a height of 2 feet or more, it is Allium tuberosum (garlic chives). The individual flowers are separate from one another and easily visible.
If the flowers are mauve and bloom in late spring or early summer, it is Allium schoenoprasum (chives). It usually flowers at 1 to 1.5 feet and all of the flowers are bunched into a ball so that individual flowers do not stand out from one another.
If the flower head does not form flowers and instead makes small bulbs, at a height of 4 feet, it is Allium sativum (garlic).
Note 1: The usual flower color of Allium schoenoprasum (chives) is mauve, but they can also bloom in white. This species is also available as a mini, which flowers at less than 1 foot.
Note 2: Flowering height varies with climate and soil conditions and is not a reliable way to identify a plant.
Allium tuberosum (garlic chives)
Allium tuberosum is a bulb that can be grown like a perennial. Over time the bulb splits forming new bulbs, eventually forming a large clump. It can be grown from seed, but is easier to grow from bulbs which can be purchased in the perennial section of most nurseries.
The plant is both a vegetable and a good ornamental perennial. I like to grow them in the perennial bed since they are treated more like your flowers than a vegetable. It is hardy in zones 4 to 8 and grows in full sun. In hotter climates some shade will be appreciated. It produces lots of seed and has a tendency to seed around too much. Excess plants can be easily removed, or if you don’t want more plants simply deadhead the finished flowers before seed matures. I cut them close to the ground right after flowering.
Leaves, which have a mild garlic flavor, can be harvested at any time by cutting what you need. They will start to re-grow almost immediately.
Allium schoenoprasum (chives)
Allium schoenoprasum are very similar to Allium tuberosum except that A. schoenoprasum:
- tastes like very mild onions
- is hardy in zones 3 to 9
- seeds less vigorously
Allium sativum (garlic)
Most alliums are easy to grow. Buy bulbs or plants, and put them in almost any type of soil. They like rich soil but don’t need it. The soil should not be too wet and all of them like full sun. Don’t fertilize unless you know you have a nutrient deficiency.
Provided they are hardy, they can be left in the ground and treated like perennials. They have almost no pests.
Garlic is treated differently if your aim is to harvest the bulbs. Garlic is dug up in late summer and replanted in fall.
There are hundreds of allium species and many hybrids that make great garden plants. Some are used for food, but most are grown for their ornamental qualities. I have alliums blooming all summer long from mid-spring to very late fall. In my garden, the last plant to bloom in fall is Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’ (see below).
For more information about bunching onions see, Growing Bunching Onions.
Here is just a short list of some other alliums you might want to try.