Friday, April 4, 2008


Garlic is as good as ten mothers. Proverb


Among the oldest known horticultural crops, for centuries garlic has been renowned for its healing properties. A belief in the sacredness of garlic can be traced back to the third millennium B.C. when it was offered to Egyptian gods and painted on the walls of tombs.  Ancient Indian cultures referred to garlic and it’s uses, and there is clear evidence of its use by the Babylonians. Some ancient writings suggest that garlic was even grown in China 4,000 years ago, giving this little bulb a long and powerful history.

Egyptian foremen and their slaves believed in the power of garlic. Inscriptions in the pyramids at Giza indicate those who built them subsisted largely on onions, garlic, and radishes, the garlic to give them strength. The Egyptians credited these three foods with magical and medicinal powers responsible for physical stamina and spiritual integrity. It has been recorded that when the supplies of these foods ran out the slaves refused to work, proving just how valuable these food sources were.

An Egyptian holy book, the Codex Ebers, dated approximately 1550 B.C., was discovered in 1878 by a German archaeologist and lists more than 800 therapeutic formulas in use at the time; twenty-two of them were based on garlic. The Codex says garlic heals headaches, heart problems, body weaknesses, human bites, intestinal parasites, lack of stamina, heart disease, and tumors.

Archeologists have also discovered clay sculptures of garlic bulbs and paintings of garlic dating about 3200 B.C. in Egyptian tombs in el-Mahasna. Garlic was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (Egypt’s youngest pharaoh) who was sent into the afterlife with garlic at his side, and within the funerary complex of Saqqarah in the sacred animal cemetery (a vast necropolis in the region of Memphis). When Herodotus (484-425 BC) arrived at the foot of the three famous pyramids, he was awed by the work involved in creating these magnificent structures. He also learned that the hieroglyphs inside praised garlic's power.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used garlic for treating infections, wounds, and intestinal disorders, not to mention a savory lamb stew. Others from this ancient civilization used garlic in a variety of ways, from repelling scorpions, to treating dog bites and bladder infections, to curing leprosy and asthma. Garlic was left out as an offering to the Greek goddess Hectate. Early Greek military leaders fed garlic to their troops before battles to give them courage and promise victory (and perhaps in an attempt to fell the opposing army with one good whiff!) Even Greek Olympic athletes counted on garlic to stimulate their performance.

The "stinking rose" was sold in large Greek towns, and later in Roman cities, by peddlers. Every Greek who wished to enter the temple of Cybele, mother of the gods, had to pass a strict breath test aimed at detecting garlic. To the Romans, garlic was a symbol of the proletariat since no noble would debase himself by smelling of garlic. Horace explained that garlic could be absorbed by the iron stomachs of the working class but made those used to more refined cooking feel unwell. Roman legionnaires attributed strength, courage and stamina to garlic and took it with them as they conquered the world, thus spreading its use and cultivation everywhere they went. Praised by Virgil and other poets of antiquity, garlic was progressively introduced into various parts of Europe during the Romans' campaigns.

Garlic was introduced to France by Godefroy de Bouillon, leader of the first crusade who, when he returned to the country in 1099, was elected king of Jerusalem. Henri IV of France was so fond of garlic that, according to a Juran├žon legend, the good king must have been baptized with a clove. Despite his royal station, the king was not above lending a hand in the kitchen: he became famous for his stewed chicken with garlic. Today the French, known for their love of good food and wine, incorporate garlic into a plethora of savory culinary dishes.

"You reek of garlic! Get out!" was the irrevocable judgment that befell any knight who dared appear at the court of King Alfonso de Castille with garlic on his breath; it was Spain and the year was 1300. Any knight who smelled of garlic was banned from court and not permitted to speak to other courtiers for an entire week.

Home of the vampire legend, ancient Transylvanians found garlic to be an effective mosquito repellent as well as a way to ward off midnight visitors. Modern representations of the vampire legend always seem to show braids of garlic hanging from the beams of kitchens in which poor peasants tremble with fear.

In the Middle Ages garlic was thought to combat the plague and was hung in braided strands across the entrances of houses to prevent evil spirits from entering. The belief that garlic could combat evil dates back to the medieval era when children would play or work in the fields with cloves of garlic hung around their necks to protect them from the evil spells of the local witch; every one knows that witches love children! This custom gradually changed, and in the 19th century, cloves of garlic adorned only the necks of cows and heifers.

Throughout ancient India, Egypt, Greece and Rome, into the Middle Ages, and forward into modern times, garlic has always been considered potent medicine. Today garlic has maintained supporters as both a favorite food and for its medicinal properties. It is good for zapping bacteria, keeping your heart healthy or warding off coughs and colds, and adds amazing flavor to everything from marinara sauces to a hearty beef stew.


Today garlic only grows wild  in Central Asia (centered in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

In the past wild garlic  grew over a much larger territory and may have bloomed in an area from China to India to Egypt to the Ukraine. This region where garlic grows in the wild, is referred to as its "center of origin" since this is the geographic area where the crop originated and the only place where it flourished in the wild. Only in this region does garlic routinely grow without the assistance of human propagation. The "center of origin" for a plant or animal species is also referred to as its "center of diversity" since this is where the broadest range of genetic variation can be expected. That is why those who have sought to find new genetic variation in garlic collect wild garlic in Central Asia.

We know almost nothing about the early types of cultivated garlic. No designation of garlic varieties was made in early writings. Throughout garlic's history some have speculated that softneck garlic was the predominant type cultivated, although evidence of  a hardneck varietal has been found interred in Egyptian tombs. It was not until garlic was cultivated in southern Europe that the distinction between hardneck and softneck was routinely noted.

Throughout history, humans migrating and traveling through Central Asia and surrounding areas have collected wild garlic (and still do) and carried it with them for later consumption and cultivation, and so garlic came to be cultivated. It is easy to imagine early garlic connoisseurs migrating beyond the natural range of wild garlic and carrying it far from its center of origin. There are plants in the United States locally referred to as "wild garlic", Allium vineale, but this is another species of the garlic genus (Allium), not garlic itself (Allium sativum).

Learn how to pickle garlic here.


Today about 2.5 million acres of cultivated garlic produce about 10 million metric tons globally each year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization . Garlic is a crop widely grown on a small scale for local markets and, particularly in the U.S., by a few large-scale producers for processing and fresh sales.

Although widely cultivated, production of true garlic seed was underway before the 1980's, it is only since routine seed production became possible in the 1980's that garlic can be called a domesticated crop. A strict definition of domestication is the process of selective breeding of a plant or animal to better meet human needs.  For many years garlic was shunned by Western cultures, such as Britain and America, because of the residual smell it left behind. In seventeenth century England, garlic was considered unfit for ladies and anyone who wished to court them, and it was avoided in America even early into the 20th century when famous chefs would substitute onion for garlic in recipes. As America experienced a huge influx of immigrants during the 19th century, however, garlic slowly gained a foothold on the American palette.


Beyond superstition, modern research has confirmed what our ancestors believed about the health benefits of garlic. In 1858, Louis Pasteur documented that garlic kills bacteria, with one millimeter of raw garlic juice proving as effective as 60 milligrams of penicillin.

During World War II, when penicillin and sulfa drugs were scarce, the British and Russian armies used diluted garlic solutions as an antiseptic to disinfect open wounds and prevent gangrene. Though not completely understood at the time, today’s research has confirmed that garlic’s healing powers stem from hundreds of volatile sulfur compounds found in the vegetable, including allicin, (which gives garlic its offensive odor), alliin, cycroalliin, and diallyldisulphide.

The allicin in raw, crushed garlic has been shown to kill 23 types of bacteria, including salmonella and staphylococcus. Heated garlic gives off another compound, diallyldisulphide-oxide, which has been shown to lower serum cholesterol by preventing clotting in the arteries.

Vitamins in garlic, such as A, B, and C, stimulate the body to fight carcinogens and get rid of toxins, and may even aid in preventing certain types of cancer, such as stomach cancer. Garlic's sulfur compounds can regulate blood sugar metabolism, stimulate and detoxify the liver, and stimulate the blood circulation and the nervous system.

In many cultures, garlic is also considered a powerful aphrodisiac and a vegetarian alternative to Viagra; some say it’s even able to raise a man’s sperm count. In Palestinian, tradition dictates a groom who wears a clove of garlic in his buttonhole will be guaranteed a happy wedding night.

Garlic is widely used around the world as a seasoning or condiment. The flavor varies in intensity and aroma with cooking methods. It is often paired with onion, tomato, or ginger. The parchment-like skin is typically removed before using in raw or cooked form. An alternative is to cut the top off the bulb, coat the cloves of garlic by dribbling olive oil (or other oil based seasoning) over them and roasting in the oven.

While experts vary in opinion regarding the recommended daily amount of dietary garlic, most of them agree that fresh garlic is better than supplements. To negate the aromatic after effects of fresh garlic herbalists recommend munching on fresh parsley.


Growing your own garlic at home can be fun and relatively easy. Garlic grows from the individual cloves, with each clove producing one plant with a single bulb, because of this garlic is self-sustaining. Garlic’s unique fungicidal and pesticide properties can also help keep neighboring plants healthy. Garlic typically enjoys a Mediterranean climate, but has regularly been cultivated now in cooler climates.

Choose a garden site where the soil is not too damp and sunshine is abundant. Plant the cloves individually, standing upright and about an inch under the surface. Cloves should be planted about 4 inches apart, with rows about 18 inches apart. Warmer temperate areas - generally speaking, can plant in late autumn through to early winter. Under warm temperate climatic conditions autumn planted garlic will remain dormant for a few weeks and then develop roots and a shoot. With the onset of winter growth is fairly slow until temperatures warm in spring. The cold of winter is needed, as with many bulbs, to initiate the side buds that will ultimately grow and swell to become cloves (and in some types, to initiate the flower bud).

The lengthening days of spring are the signal for the initiated but undeveloped side buds to start forming into cloves. It is possible to sow in early spring and get a reasonably good harvest, but everything is against you - wet, difficult to work soil; no early root growth; less exposure to winter chill. Early spring is possible, but definitely not the first choice.

In temperate areas plant after the first good frosts of autumn. Spring planting is possible in the higher latitudes, as the longer day lengths promote bulbing, but the shorter season means the bulbs are often smaller. Autumn garlic will produce roots, but either no, or short, top growth which is good. If the garlic sprouts have emerged, they can survive freezes and snowfalls.

Autumn planted garlic should have strong roots by winter, and these roots will help prevent the 'seed' being pushed out of the ground as the soil alternately freezes and thaws ('frost heave') but they should be mulched heavily (about 6 inches/15 cm) to prevent heaving and frosting of any possible growth. Just make sure to pull the mulch aside in spring.

A good rule of thumb is to harvest your garlic when half of the leaves around the base of the bulb are green and the other half are turning brown and dying off. Take your garlic inside right away, brush off any dirt, gently wash the bulbs and hang in a cool, dry place. Leave them for at least a week to dry. It is best to dry your garlic out of the sun or your bulbs will sunburn. Because weather is so changeable it is really best to dry your garlic under cover. When the bulbs are dry, you can trim off the roots, scuff off the outer discolored parchment, and braid your garlic for storage.

If you intend to keep your own clove seed, select the biggest and best bulb. Leave the cloves on the bulb, and at planting time select only the best cloves to use as seed cloves. Store your seed bulbs in a relatively cool, dry place; heat in storage can cause the seed cloves to develop into a plant that produces a single large clove , rather than a normal multi-clove bulb. Prolonged exposure to low temperatures can also disrupt proper growth.

Often glorified, sometimes maligned, the strong, pungent scent and distinctive taste of garlic makes for strong opinions on this bulb’s epicurean quality. Garlic has had an amazing array of nutritional and medicinal applications throughout human history, and it’s still improving the health of many today. So grab a clove and enjoy the many benefits of nature’s oldest super food: garlic.

Philipp W. Simon, USDA, ARS, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization