Information from The herbal society of Ameica
Garlic – Allium sativum Formerly classified in the lily (Liliaceae) family, garlic is now a member of the Alliaceae (84,85) and is related to onions (Allium cepa), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and ornamentals like star of Persia (Allium cristophii). Although many plants include “garlic” as part of their common names, only plants in the genus Allium with the specific epithet sativum are true garlics. Plants like garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) have a mild garlic flavor but are not really garlic. Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum), which closely resembles true garlic but has very large cloves and a milder flavor, is actually a type of leek. Most people think of garlic as a bulb made up of cloves. This is the portion of the plant we all experience in kitchens, restaurants and grocery stores. Garlic bulbs can range in size from 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter depending on variety and cultivar (25) and can have from 4-60 cloves of various shapes and sizes (25, 46, 70). Cloves are enclosed in a white or pinkpurple tinged papery membrane and are actually swollen “specialized leaves” (25). Garlic plants also have 6-12 flat, narrow “regular” leaves and can reach from just under 10 inches to over 6 feet in height (21, 70, 71, 82). There are two basic types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlics are characterized by hard, woody central stalks that extend down to the basal plate at the bottom of the bulb (59). They send up a flower stalk (scape) and umbel covered by a pointed spathe (46). In the A. sativum var. ophioscorodonhardneck variety, the scape curls or loops. The umbel contains a cluster of greenish-white or pink flowers from which aerial cloves called bulbils develop (46, 70). Bulbils are generally smaller than cloves but, like cloves, can vary in size and number. Softneck garlics are thought to have evolved from hardneck garlics (25, 70). Softnecks have a non-woody pseudostem formed from overlapping leaf sheaths and rarely send up a flower stalk, unless stressed by climatic conditions (76). If you’ve purchased garlic at the grocery store it was probably a softneck cultivar, since softnecks make up the majority of the U.S. commercial crop. Garlic is a perennial that is for the most part grown as an annual. Although garlic plants can flower, they have sterile pollen and don’t produce fertile seed (except, rarely, in research laboratories) (76). Garlic is primarily cultivated, but can also reproduce naturally when bulbils fall or bulbs left in the ground break apart into individual cloves (46). For information on growing garlic, see the Cultivation section of this guide.
There is some debate about garlic’s taxonomy (25, 68 cited in 67, 70, 82). Garlic was at one time known as Allium controversum (12, 66), which hints at the problems classifying the herb. Most sources recognize one major hardneck variety, A. sativum var. ophioscorodon, and one major softneck variety, A. sativum var. sativum. One other little-known variety, A. sativum var. pekinense (Peking garlic) also exists (70), but most gardeners won’t be able to experience this variety firsthand, and information about it is difficult to locate. In the garlic trade, garlics are often separated further into groups based on shared traits, but these are not an official part of garlic’s taxonomy and nomenclature. Groups referenced in the trade include Rocambole, Silverskin, Purple Striped, Artichoke and Porcelain. To complicate matters, these groups are sometimes called “varieties” in seed catalogs, but this is a horticultural distinction, and they are not varieties in the botanical sense. See the Varieties and Cultivars sections of this guide for additional information.
Often called the “stinking rose,” garlic may be known for its odor as much as its flavor, but garlic is actually odorless until its cells are ruptured by being “bruised, cut or crushed” (66, 70, 82). Garlic’s signature scent comes primarily from sulfur compounds. When a garlic clove is cut, alliin, an “odorless, sulfur-containing amino acid derivative” (67) reacts with the enzyme alliinase to form allicin and other sulphur compounds (46, 70, 82). Allicin breaks down into diallyl disulfide, which is largely responsible for garlic’s odor (46, 70). In addition to scent, allicin is also responsible for many of garlic’s health benefits including its antioxidant, anti-microbial, cholesterol-lowering and blood-thinning properties (11) and is likely to play a role in garlic’s anti-cancer effects (46). For more information on garlic’s medicinal properties, see the Medicinal Uses section of this guide. The same compounds that cause garlic’s odor contribute to garlic’s best known side-effect: garlic breath. A major contributor to garlic breath is garlic particles left in the mouth after eating (70), but garlic’s sulfur compounds are also present in perspiration and can produce a lingering garlic scent (5, 46, 82). According to HSA garlic aficionados Susan Belsinger and Pat Reppert, garlic powder is more likely to produce an offensive odor than fresh garlic (5, 58). There are many folk remedies for garlic breath. Many recommend chewing chlorophyll-rich plants like parsley or mint (5, 39) or cloves, fennel seeds, anise seeds and coffee beans (82). Other possible remedies include bathing in warm water, eating milk, yogurt or honey, and drinking red wine (67). One source suggests rubbing peppermint oil on the feet to remove the scent (41). According to Susan Belsinger, although some of these remedies may help, none will eliminate the odor completely. She recommends eating garlic everyday and encouraging everyone else around you to do the same. Then no one will notice (5)! Regular consumption of small amounts of garlic may also reduce the odor (82). To remove garlic odor from hands after peeling, Pat Reppert recommends rubbing hands with salt and lemon juice, then rinsing with water (58).
A garlic bulb is composed of about 65% water, 28% carbohydrates, 2% protein, 1.5% fiber and only 0.15% fats (11). According to analysis by the USDA, an average clove of raw garlic has just under 5 calories, 12 mg potassium, over 5 mg calcium, 4.59 mg of phosphorus, .94 mg of vitamin C, plus small amounts of a variety of other vitamins and minerals (73). Garlic also contains ten different sugars, cellulose, mucilage, peptides, pectin (82), polysaccharides and saponins (36). Garlic essential oil is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) at 0.01 to 40 ppm (70). Although garlic is loaded with nutritional value and health promoting effects, it should be given only “sparingly” and with “caution” to small children since it can irritate their sensitive digestive tracts (24, 51). Some sources also caution use while breastfeeding (11, 36) since garlic is excreted into breast milk (51, 82). Note that large doses of garlic may cause gastrointestinal distress in some individuals (24), and those allergic to garlic may need to avoid it altogether. In addition, garlic and other alliums can be toxic to cats, dogs and other animals if eaten in large amounts.
History & Folklore
Although its exact place of origin is unknown, most experts agree that the garlic cultivated today originated somewhere in Central Asia, and may have evolved from a wild ancestor, A. longicuspis (25, 27, 70, 71). Records of garlic’s use date back about 5,000 years in China and the Sumerian civilization of ancient Mesopotamia (6, 8, 41). Nomads and traders brought garlic to Egypt, India, Europe and other parts of the world (25, 41, 82), and some believe the Spanish conquistador, Cortéz, introduced garlic to North America in the 1500s (67). Over the years, garlic has gone by many names including the “stinking rose” and poor-man’s treacle (or cure-all). The Latin name, Allium sativum, means “cultivated onion” which suggests that garlic may have been one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans (70). The common name derives in part from the shape of the foliage and comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for spear/lance (gar) and potherb (leac) (67, 70, 82). Garlic’s reputation over the centuries has been mixed. It has been valued for its medicinal properties since ancient times and has been a fundamental part of Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, but it has also had a variety of negative associations and was considered unfit for the upper classes due to its smell (41). Garlic has long been associated with laborers, warriors and peasants. It was eaten by the Egyptian pyramid builders, early Olympians, and Greek and Roman soldiers for strength and vitality, and was a key component in “Four Thieves Vinegar,” a concoction that was believed to prevent infection during The Great Plague of 1655 (6, 7, 21, 81, 82). In Europe, garlic was eaten to help a runner win a race (35).
The classic herbalists were somewhat ambivalent about garlic. Gerard and Culpeper considered garlic a poisoning antidote and a cure for intestinal worms, the stings of “venomous beasts,” and a variety of other conditions (19, 33). Culpeper described garlic as “a remedy for all diseases or hurts (except those which it self breeds)” but cautioned that it could “send up strange fancies and as strange visions to the head” if taken in excess (19). Gerard had similarly mixed feelings, writing that garlic “yeeldeth to the body no nourishment at all, it ingendreth naughty and sharpe bloud [blood]” (33).
The ancient Egyptians considered garlic sacred (6) and used it in oath-taking and as part of burial rituals (25, 35, 67). Garlic bulbs were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb (70), and the Egyptian Book of the Dead includes twenty-two remedies involving garlic (41). Garlic has been associated with Mars, the god of war, and Hecate, “goddess of the night sky, the underworld and enchantment” (41), and was traditionally eaten during rituals celebrating her (20, 35). The Bible includes only one specific reference to garlic, Numbers 11:5: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (1). Although it is not mentioned specifically, some believe that garlic was one of the bitter herbs associated with Passover in the Old Testament (37). In addition, according to one legend surrounding the biblical story of Adam and Eve, as Satan left the Garden of Eden after the fall, garlic sprouted from his left footstep and onion from his right (12, 35). 10 The association of garlic with the devil and “unclean thoughts” has been part of a variety of religious traditions, including sects of Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism (41). Garlic was thought to “enhance sensual feelings” and be “unfit for gods and the sages” in Hindu religion (53). Yet, according to an Indian proverb garlic is “as good as ten mothers” (7). Although it was considered a tonic in ancient Greece, worshippers were forbidden from entering the temples of Cybele after consuming garlic (41).
Protection & Luck
Even though garlic has been associated with the devil, it has more often been viewed as a dispeller of evil and a protective charm. In Sanskrit, garlic means “slayer of monsters” (41). Garlic’s most famous protective use is as a vampire repellent, but it has also been used to ward off scorpions and snakes and has been said to repel evil and invite luck and prosperity if hung over a door (81). In Sephardic culture, garlic was used to shield households from the “evil eye” (48). Brides can carry garlic in their pocket on their wedding day to protect them from evil (20), and in Sicily, garlic is placed in the birthing bed for a successful delivery (41). Garlic has also been carried by mountaineers and sailors to guard against inclement weather (41), rubbed on cooking pots to protect food (and no doubt also add flavor!), and used to guard against theft (20). According to Homer, yellow garlic helped Ulysses “escape from being changed by Circe into a pig” (35). Garlic’s magical powers are said to vanish if it is rubbed with a magnet or lodestone (20). In addition to protecting people, some cultures have used garlic to safeguard farm animals and pets. In Scandinavia, garlic was hung around the necks of goats to protect them from trolls (81). Roosters and dogs have been fed garlic in Bohemia to fend off evil influences, and garlic bulbs have served as a protective charm for cows (46). According to folk tradition, feeding garlic to chickens would do more than protect them. It would actually improve the quality of their eggs (35). Recent research shows that there may be some fact behind the folklore. A study published in Poultry Science in December 2002, showed that hens fed garlic paste laid lower cholesterol eggs (17).
Love & Lust \
Garlic may have a reputation for producing garlic breath, but it has also long been considered an aphrodisiac. Garlic was traditionally worn by Hebrew grooms to guarantee marital bliss (6), “hung over a marital bed [to ensure] that the couple will have children” (81), and was forbidden for Hindu holy men due to its ability to inspire lust (6). Some suggest that garlic’s aphrodisiac properties are due to mild irritation of genitourinary tract (81).
Language of Flowers
In the Victorian language of flowers, garlic signifies both a “charm against evil” and “I can’t stand you” (34). Garlic: An Herb Society of America Guide Garlic wrapped for a wedding gift Photo by Pat Kenny 11 References to garlic can be found in literature around the globe from the dawn of literary history to the present. Garlic appears in the works of Homer, Chaucer, the Latin poet Horace (65 B.C.-8 B.C.), the Greek playwright and poet Aristophanes (448 B.C.-388 B.C.), the Roman poet Juvenal (first-second century), the French writer Rabelais (1490-1553), the Spanish playwright, poet and novelist Cervantes (1547-1616), and Shakespeare. In many cases, garlic was associated with the peasantry or lower classes. One of the earliest mentions of garlic is in Homer’s Iliad (circa 700 B.C.):
The draught prescribed, fair Hecamede prepares, Arsinous’ daughter, graced with golden hairs: (Whom to his aged arms, a royal slave, Greece, as the prize of Nestor’s wisdom gave:) A table first with azure feet she placed; Whose ample orb a brazen charger graced; Honey new-press’d, the sacred flour of wheat, And wholesome garlic, crown’d the savoury treat… - Book XI. Argument. The Third Battle, and the Acts of Agamemnon (42) Although Homer portrayed garlic in a positive light, the same cannot be said for Chaucer. In The Canterbury Tales, garlic is used in the description of the coarse and “lecherous” Summoner:
Today garlic is embraced and celebrated by people around the world. California is the capital of U.S. commercial garlic production and the site of America’s largest garlic festival, held annually in Gilroy, but there are many festivals and gatherings around the country. Every year, HSA member, Susanna Reppert, holds an annual garlic Halloween dinner with several courses of garlic, and 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, which was founded by Pat Reppert in Saugerties, New York, and is now produced and sponsored by the Saugerties Kiwanis Club.