Garlic - A Long History!
The common everyday garlic is Allium sativum and is one of the oldest cultivated plants. There are reports of it being grown around 5000 years BC. Since then it has become a major ingredient in the food of nearly all cultures. It has also developed a myriad of health benefits and numerous anecdotes and myths about its powers.
The plant is a monocot and is in the genus Allium which includes onions, leeks and chives. It is in the family Alliaceae although there is still some debat on this. It used to be in the family Liliaceae but was then put out on its own. Some now say it is a sub-family, along with the Agapanthaceae, of the large family Amaryllidaceae. This includes the genera Amaryllis and Agapanthus as well as the popular garden plant Tulbaghia or Society Garlic - so called because the foliage has a garlic fragrance and can be used in salads etc for a garlic flavour. During the early 20th century it was felt that you could eat it without the tell tale 'garlic breath' and were able to go out in society.
Allium is the type genus and is the Latin word for garlic. All members of the genus have strap like leaves, a bulb or bulbous growth at the base of the stem and the characteristic 'onion' or 'garlic' odour. There is some debate as to size of the genus from 200 to 800 species. The majority come from the northern hemisphere with a few from South America and South Africa. Most of which have edible stems, flowers and bulbs although in the modern world the cultivated species are: Allium cepa - onions, Allium ampeloprasum - Leeks, Allium sativum - garlics, Allium schoenprasum - chives, Allium oschaninii -shallots and Allium fistulosum, Allium chinense - scallions of 'spring onions'. They all have very pretty flowers and many are now grown just for the flowers. A border of flowering Alliums is a stunning sight and the flowers make a colourful and tasty addition to any salad.
There are three 'garlics' generally available in Australia. Elephant or Russian Garlic looks like a normal clove on steroids. It is actually a form of Leek (A. ampeloprasum) with the characteristic thick fleshy stem of the leek with a garlic like bulb at the base. The bulb consists of 4 to 6 large cloves - about the size of a plum. It has a very mild garlic flavour that is great in salads or baked whole. This only occasionally available in the shops so best grown at home. The second variety is 'Pearl' or 'Single Clove' garlic. This is a small bulb about the size of a large cherry. It has a slightly milder taste and can be used wherever normal garlic is used. It is also quite nice baked whole and is certainly much easier to peel. This variety is hard to buy in the nurseries but often turns up in the supermarket or green grocers.
This leaves the traditional plant Allium sativum. This has been in cultivation for so long that its origins are lost in time. It is also widely grown around the world and has become naturalised in some areas. It is believed it originated in Central Asia and moved to southern and eastern Europe before becoming a staple in the diets of most parts of the planet. As with so many of these ancient foods it was carried around the world by early explorers keen to take a taste of home with them. Then it became part of the food and spice trade.
As garlic became more popular in each country farmers started to grow and select their plants. There are now hundreds of selections to be found around the world. they are divided into two groups, soft neck and hard neck which refers to the flexibility of the dried stem. Soft neck garlic has hollow stem that has no rigidity whereas the hard neck stem has a stiff neck that stand out for the bulb. Soft neck varieties generally bulb earlier, have multiple layers of cloves - hence the other common name - artichoke garlic, and store longer. Some say they taste flavour but the flavour is influenced by planting time, cultivar, winter and spring weather, nutrient levels, harvest time, storage and a myriad of other factors.
There are numerous selections around the world. Most are named after the location where they were first isolated or are grown. In many cases this means the garlic in one location is the same as that in another. For example what we call Spanish Garlic may actually be the Spanish cultivar Rojo del Baza. It is felt that they fit into to ten broad groupings with many having picked up localised characteristics. As a home grower it is best to either grow from your own selections or to buy from the same nursery source. It is hoped that over the next five years named cultivars with specific provenances will become available from the main herb growers.
Like so many other herbs and vegetables, garlic likes open well drained soil with good moisture during the main growing period. It prefers a temperature range of 10C to 25C for active growing but responds well to a cold spell prior to growing. This is why it is best planted in late autumn to mid winter. It is said that for most of Australia it should be planted on the shortest day and harvested on the longest day. However for best results it is best to plant some every three to four weeks from late April to late June then harvest over a longer period thereby giving a longer supply of fresh garlic. The plants will put on some root growth before going dormat for winter. Then as soon as the weather warms up in spring the growth will take off. At this stage a good balanced fertiliser should be applied.
The hard neck varieties will produce a long scape just prior to harvest. This is the precursor to the flower and should be removed to improve bulb size. It has a fresh garlic taste and is excellent in salads or added late in a stirfry. When the rest of the leaves start to turn yellow it is time to harvest.
Next month I will look at some of the different cultivars, storage and usage and the myriad of health benefits. The myths, truths, stories and scientific reports.