Optimising flavour in chives
Find out the right conditions for growing chives with a stronger flavour for the fresh cut and potted markets.
How to improve flavour in chives
Popular for their onion-like flavour, chives are a hardy, low-maintenance herb easily grown in the UK climate.
These are the main considerations for ensuring your chive plants have a pungent flavour:
- Choose varieties that suit your growing conditions and market
- Fertilise – sulphur is critical to good flavour development
- Maintain daytime temperatures of 25–30°C, where possible
- Harvest when temperatures are low
- Post-harvest, store in temperatures of 2°C
- Handle with care – avoid physical damage to the crop, as "off" flavours form when cells are damaged
Chive growing in the UK
Relatives of the onion, chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are grown and marketed as live pot plants and cut herbs in the UK. They differ from many other Allium crops in that it’s the green part of the leaves rather than the bulbs or white part of the leaves that are used in cooking.
Chives are typically field grown from early spring to November in the UK. This page won’t be covering other species known as chive, such as Chinese or garlic chive (Allium tuberosum), although the chemistry involved in flavour is consistent across the Allium family.
Factors affecting the flavour of chives
Chives get their flavour from compounds that form when precursor molecules known as S-alk(en)yl-cysteine sulphoxides (ACSOs) are separated from enzymes in the cytoplasm of each cell. When the cell is damaged, the two become mixed, producing a range of sulphur-based compounds. These have strong antimicrobial and antifeedant effects in the plant and defend it from moulds and insects, but they’re also responsible for the characteristic flavour.
Sugar content is an important flavour parameter in chives. Sugar balances the pungent sulphurous chemicals, and the overall flavour depends on the mix of sugars and thiosulphate flavour compounds.
Normal healthy growth will result in robust plants with a typical flavour profile, but here’s what you can do to ensure the best possible flavour.
Grow your chives in normal conditions without stresses, as this allows maximum sugar production and minimises the development of cabbage- or mustard-like flavours.
Choose chive varieties that perform well with your specific growing systems and climate, as well as those best suited to the market you’re supplying. Varieties that readily take up sulphur by the roots typically have a strong flavour, free from cabbage-like aromas.
Fertilise with sulphur. This is particularly important in ensuring an intense flavour, as this increases proportionally to the level of available sulphur. It’s also important to maintain sufficient nitrogen levels for optimal growth. Selenium can inhibit sulphur uptake, so monitor its levels in the soil.
Chives benefit from normal irrigation. They are fairly drought-tolerant and can regenerate after a dry period, but this slows down growth and affects yields without improving flavour.
Ensure your chives have sufficient light, as low light levels are detrimental to flavour. This is because the formation of flavour compounds from sulphur is light dependent.
Longer days mean greater accumulation of sugar and beneficial flavour compounds, which are strongly linked to photosynthesis and light intensity, respectively.
Use supplementary heating at cold times of the year, as this could increase growth and flavour. Pungency roughly doubles with a temperature increase from 10°C to 30°C, so, where possible, maintain daytime temperatures of 25–30°C. If you use glasshouses, take care to avoid heat stress in the summer.
After cutting, store at cool temperatures of about 2°C and avoid damage to the leaves to limit the development of bitter flavours. Short-term storage doesn’t appear to affect flavour intensity, but longer-term storage affects the perception of ‘green’ and ‘onion’ flavours.