Thursday, October 11, 2012

The vampire-hating chives

Species name: Allium tuberosum

Common name: garlic chives

Location: Ontario

There is a "free herb garden" on campus right beside the building that my office and lab are in, mixed in with some non-edible ornamental plants and some giant slabs of different kinds of rocks that were donated by various "rock companies" (most of them are affiliated somehow with the concrete business, but not all; some are granite supply companies). That is, the herb garden is free for the picking as long as you can identify plants; none of them are labelled. It means that if you really, really like sage and can identify it, you've got a perennial sage plant to pick from that's now about 3 feet tall and 3 feet across. Great for "backyard cooks"! The downside of this idea, however, is that many non-native herbs are invasive in North America. Garlic chives are one great example of this. They are native to the Mediterranean region (North Africa and Southern Europe), and are flavour-wise a hybrid between garlic and chives. The plant looks like a chive plant but with white flowers (chives have bright purple flowers), but the leaves taste much more pungent than the chive leaves; the flavour is much more like garlic. I personally have never cooked with them so I can't attest to whether the flavour remains after cooking, but I have tried a leaf raw and oh, my. I'm not about to repeat that purpose any time soon. It was great for clearing the nasal passages, and the room once I opened my mouth to speak! This species is used very commonly in Chinese, Korean and Indian cuisine, and in one traditional dish from Nepal called "dunduko sag."

Should you decide to use this plant as an ornamental and edible species, make sure you keep it under control. We do have quite a few native Allium species in Canada and the United States, and non-natives are much better competitors for resources (they have the same problem in Europe with the North American species, don't worry. It's not a one-way street!). Another danger with this plant is that it's a good example of why you must learn to identify plants properly if you want to be a forager. There are plenty of edible wild species of plants in North America that would make a great addition to any table, raw or cooked. Wild garlic, Allium canadense, which is very morphologically similar to this species, is not one of them. All parts of the plant are incredibly toxic and should never be eaten (cooked or raw; the toxins do not neutralize with heat)! The best way to tell these two species apart is to look at the flowers; in wild garlic the flowers are purple and have purple "bulbets" in the inflorescence between the small flower stalks, and in garlic chives the flowers are white with no bulbets. Wild foraging for food can be incredibly rewarding, but as my supervisor says "you can eat everything once!" Make sure you're confident of the identification of the species of plant (or fungus!) before consumption.