Garlic, a powerful cooking and healing herb, can inspire extraordinary passion among people. On any given weekend from July through September, thousands of garlic lovers pay homage to the “stinking rose” at dozens of garlic festivals held throughout the United States and Canada.
A member of the amaryllis family, garlic is generally believed to have originated in Asia. Its edible underground bulb is made up of 4 to 15 “cloves” enclosed in a papery white or pale purple skin. Aboveground, this perennial bears long, flat leaves and an umbel of greenish white to pink flowers. Garlic’s name is thought to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon words gar (spear) and lac (plant), referring to the plant’s spear-shaped leaves. Sativum, the species name, means “cultivated.” Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) produces bulbs that lack the plant’s characteristic papery skin.
Common Name: Garlic
Description: Compound bulb of 4 to 15 cloves enclosed in a papery sheath; linear leaves arise from base; small white flowers in umbels on stems up to 4 feet tall
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: Early to midsummer
Parts Used: Bulbs and leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, widely naturalized
One of the world’s most popular cooking herbs, garlic adds flavor to an enormous variety of foods, including salad dressings, pasta sauces, soups, vegetables, meat and fish dishes, vinegars, and herb butters and salts. The entire bulb can be baked or roasted, softening the cloves into a paste used as a seasoning or a spread. For a milder garlic flavor, mince garlic greens and use them as you would chives on soups, salads, pasta dishes, and other savory foods. Tip: To peel garlic easily, use the flat side of a knife blade to lightly crush the clove and loosen its skin.
People have used garlic for health and healing for more than 5,000 years. In ancient Egypt, the builders of the Great Pyramids ate garlic to prevent colds, bronchitis, and other upper-respiratory conditions. During the Middle Ages, French priests used garlic for protection against bubonic plague. During World War I, soldiers in Europe applied garlic to external wounds as a disinfectant; during World War II, Russian soldiers used garlic so extensively that the herb became known as “Russian penicillin.”
The chemistry of garlic is complex, and researchers still don’t understand exactly how it works. Garlic contains allicin, a sulfur compound activated when the herb is crushed. Allicin is believed to be responsible for garlic’s strong flavor and aroma, as well as its medicinal benefits. Sometimes called the “pungent panacea,” garlic has potent antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. It is commonly used to treat diarrhea, as well as colds and other upper respiratory infections. One clinical study suggested that taking garlic supplements can help prevent the common cold. Regular use of garlic can also gently lower blood pressure.
For the greatest health benefits, use raw crushed garlic—cooking reduces the herb’s beneficial compounds—or take garlic capsules with at least 4 to 8 milligrams of allicin. Some health practitioners advise their patients to chew a whole garlic clove twice a day at the first sign of a cold. (Take the clove with olive oil or sauce if plain garlic is too much for you!)
Caution: Consuming large quantities of garlic can cause gastrointestinal upset and might reduce your body’s ability to form blood clots. If you’re planning to have surgery and you take garlic supplements or eat more than four cloves a day, tell your physician; he or she might want you to stop or reduce your use of garlic before the procedure.
Some gardeners crush garlic and mix it with water to make a pest-repellent spray. Others report that simply interplanting garlic with vegetable and fruit crops deters pests.
How to grow it
Garlic prefers rich, moist, sandy soil and a sunny location. It requires a period of cold (40° to 50°F) to trigger sprouting. In the North, plant garlic in October or November, before the ground freezes; in the South, plant garlic in December or January. Plant the cloves 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. When the bottom two or three leaves turn brown in early to midsummer, knock the stems over with a rake. Withhold water for a few days, then carefully dig up the plants. Dry them on a screen in a warm, dark, airy location for several days, then brush off any remaining soil.