Ode to the Stinky Rose

Get Creative in the Garden with Bryn — By on July 1, 2009 6:00 PM

By Bryn Richard

Although as Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet” there is one plant that has earned the nickname “The Stinking Rose” and that is Garlic! While this term is widely used, no one seems to know where it comes from. The “stinking” part is obvious (though some of us would prefer “fragrant”) but the “rose” half of the term is a bit of a mystery. The only thing I can think of is that a head of garlic with the outer papery skin removed does look somewhat like a multi-petalled flower.

Fresh garlic drying out on the porch

Fresh garlic drying out on the porch


Regardless, garlic has been eaten and cultivated since the earliest written record. It is believed that garlic originated in Central Asia and was used there as early as Neolithic times. There is evidence of its use in Egypt by 3000 BC (garlic, and representations of garlic, were found in pharaohs’ tombs, including Tutankhamen’s) and by the advanced ancient civilizations in the Indus Valley. The Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit medical treatise dating from around the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, mentions the medicinal properties of garlic, as does a 4th century AD Buddhist text. (www.plantcultures.org) Much of Europe was slower to adopt garlic, especially Great Britain, but garlic was used regularly by the Romans. The Spanish, Portuguese and French are all credited with introducing garlic to the “New World”.

Garlic is mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 11:4-6) as a food of the Israelites in Egypt. The Talmud, a book of ancient Hebrew rabbinical teachings, encourages eating garlic. Shakespeare mentions garlic in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream (“And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.” -Bottom) The Romans, Virgil and Pliny the Elder, both wrote about garlic.

In addition to its culinary properties, garlic has also had a long history in medicine and folklore. Most people are familiar with the belief that garlic will ward off vampires. Eating quantities of garlic is also believed to ward off a much more common blood sucker-the mosquito. Through history, garlic has also been believed to ward off other evil spirits, which may have stemmed from garlic’s antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Garlic has also been believed to be energizing to the body and senses, and to give strength, and has been fed to both soldiers and slaves. Traditional Buddhist and Hindu beliefs feel that the stimulating qualities of garlic interfere with religious focus and either avoid garlic altogether or avoid it prior to visiting temples and on religious holidays and festivals. An ancient Korean belief is that the six-clove black garlic (a genetically unique variety that is still grown in a few mountain areas) can bestow immortality and supernatural powers. Many cultures have touted the aphrodisiac qualities of garlic (although to be on the safe side, I think both parties should consume it.)

Folk medicine has credited garlic as being able to ward off or cure a wide range of ills, from cold and fevers to rabies, tuberculosis and the Bubonic Plague. In addition to garlic’s antibiotic and antifungal properties, modern medicine is finding that garlic may also thin the blood, lower blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar and have anti-cancer and anti-oxidant effects (The Herb Society of America). Studies are inconclusive so far, but garlic supplement tablets remain popular.

Garlic continues to be a popular food today. There are a number of books dedicated to the subject, entire restaurants focused on serving garlic and several garlic festivals as well. Gilroy, California, the self-styled “Garlic Capital of the World” holds probably the best known garlic festival, held annually the last full weekend in July. Last year (2008), the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s 30th yearsaw 107,553 attendees.

Despite Gilroy’s claim, China produces many times the amount of garlic as the United States (12,088,000 vs 221,810 tons in 2007). Not only that, but they manage to produce it cheaper as well. The garlic you find in the grocery store most likely came from China. (In 2006, the amount of fresh garlic imported from China exceeded the amount grown in California and it continues to increase. NPR) As with other items you will find in the produce section of the grocery store, there is little genetic variability in the garlic sold in most stores. The garlic you will find was grown more for its appearance and shelf life than its flavor. Considering that there are over 300 varieties of garlic (I’ve seen claims of over 600 varieties) and that it can be grown in nearly any climate, this is a real shame.

Garlic, Allium sativum, is a member of the Onion, or Alliaceae family as are onions, chives, leeks, shallots and others, both edible and ornamental, wild and cultivated. Garlic can be divided into 2 major subgroups-stiffneck and softneck. Stiffneck garlic (Allium sativum subsp. ophioscorodon), also called hardneck or topset garlic, produces a central fibrous flower stalk and the cloves grow in a circle around this stem. Stiffneck garlic varieties typically are known for their range of excellent flavors. They are more suited to cooler climates and store 5-9 months, depending on the variety. Stiffneck garlic is grouped into three main types: rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe.

Softneck garlic (Allium sativum subsp. sativum), as you could guess, produces a soft/non-fibrous stalk. It typically produces more cloves, in several layers, which are smaller than those produced by stiffneck garlic and typically have a hotter flavor than stiffneck garlic. Softneck garlic is more suited to growing in warmer climates. Due to its soft stem, this is the garlic that is used for braiding. Generally, softneck garlic can be stored longer than stiffneck garlic. Softneck garlic is divided into two main types: silverskin and artichoke. As with stiffneck garlic, there are an extensive number of varieties of each type of garlic.

Elephant garlic is not actually a garlic, but a different species, Allium ampeloprasum, which is more closely related to the leek. It produces very large, very mild cloves.

Garlic is very easy to grow. It prefers full sun and rich soil of an average pH that drains well. Like most bulbs, garlic is typically planted in the fall, although it can be planted in the winter or early spring in warmer climates. Spring planting generally produces smaller bulbs. (In fact, now is the time to place your order for seed garlic if you want the best selection. It won’t ship until the fall.) Aim to plant your garlic about 6 weeks before the ground freezes-the goal is to have root growth but little to no top growth happening before winter.

Garlic isn’t grown from true seeds, but from the individual cloves that make up the head of garlic. Don’t break up your garlic head until you are ready to plant, as the cloves will be unprotected. To plant, place each clove in the ground, root side down, with about two inches of soil above. Each clove should be at least 4-6″ apart, depending on the expected size of the mature head. (Elephant garlic should be 6-8″ apart and covered with 4-6″ of soil.) Mulch well to prevent frost heaving-I dump all of my raked leaves on my newly planted garlic. The larger cloves in a head of garlic will produce the larger bulbs next year, so feel free to eat the smaller cloves from your seed garlic instead of planting it. Or you can pull these plants early as “green garlic,” as it is known prior to the formation of a bulb.

After that, garlic needs very little attention. Very few pests will bother it, as most find it too pungent if not down right toxic. Garlic doesn’t compete with weeds very well, but the mulch you added in the fall should help keep them down. It can benefit from a spring application of fertilizer or compost, as garlic is a fairly heavy feeder.

Most growers recommend cutting the “scape“, or flower stalk, that stiffneck garlic produces. (Softneck garlic may produce scapes, as well, when exposed to stressful conditions.) The argument is that by removing this attempt to flower, more energy is directed towards the bulb, which becomes larger as a result. Some people believe that by leaving the scape, or at least letting it grow for a little while, a longer storing bulb is produced. Personally I’ve never tested this theory, being all too happy to cut the scapes while they are still tender and get a fresh garlic fix early in the growing season. If you wait to cut garlic scapes, they will become woody and inedible.

The two most common problems experienced with growing garlic are small bulb size and fungal rot. Small bulb size is typically due to either not rich enough soil (fertilize or add compost to correct) or not cutting the scapes. Despite garlic’s anti-fungal properties, the plant does suffer from a few fungal diseases as it is the crushed clove, not the entire plant that contains these qualities. As you would expect for a fungal disease, excessive moisture and poor drainage can trigger an outbreak. Certain of these disease spores can survive in the soil for years.

Garlic should be harvested when the leaves begin to yellow but before the plant falls over. For most garlic varieties, this happens mid-summer. Generally, 3-4 green leaves should still exist, as each green leaf represents a “paper” layer on the bulb. If the bulb is unprotected, then it won’t store for long and needs to be eaten soon after harvest. To harvest garlic, carefully loosen the soil around the plant and pull gently on the stem to remove the garlic from the ground. Brush the soil off or gently wash the bulb and hang the plant to dry in a cool, shaded, well-ventilated area for about 2 weeks. The plants can be tied in small loose bundles for drying.

After the garlic is dry to the touch, trim off the roots and cut the stems short, unless you are braiding the long stems, your softneck garlic should ideally be stored between 55F and 65F and between 40% and 60% humidity, in a mesh bag, terracotta pot, or other method that allows airflow. Storing garlic in the refrigerator is not recommended as those climatic conditions actually encourage it to sprout.

Websites with good general information on garlic:
Garlic Central
Plant Cultures
Garlic World
Gourmet Garlic Gardens
Vegetarians in Paradise
The Garlic Seed Foundation
The Garlic Store

Happy gardening!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

1 Comment

  1. Sebastian Homan says:

    Thx for information.

Leave a Comment