As we enjoy some unusually lengthy spring rains here in California, my garlic beds are coming in nicely.
I have been doing research on my favorite garden plant, and I felt compelled to share with all you lovely folks! So basically… garlic is a strange little plant!
Garlic doesn’t really fit nicely into any one plant category. Garlic is not commonly referred to as a food, a spice, or an herb.. it’s just garlic! Check out these crazy facts about the garlic plant:
1. Garlic is a bulb that is related to the daffodil.
Bulbs are amazing plants. When you think “bulbs” you probably think of a tulip or a daffodil or something similar. But when hearing the word “bulb” people rarely think of the distant cousin of the daffodil… garlic! But it’s true.. they are related!
2. The average American eats one to three pounds of garlic a year.
Americans love garlic! Commercial farmers in the USA produce one pound of garlic bulbs for every one person living in the United States ever year, and we still import garlic from out of the nation to meet demand! (This is not an official statistic, but it seems for every one person who insists garlic makes their breath stink, there are a dozen who are nomming on a whole bulb when the recipe called for just one clove, haha.)
3. Garlic is a botanical oddity.
When garlic is growing it looks like it has a normal stem. But on garlic, the green leafy portion of the plant is not them stem… the “true stem” is entirely below the ground and almost flat as a pancake.
Another oddity, is that garlic plants begin growth in the late fall when normal plants are dying or already dead. In fact, the garlic clove never dies, and leaf growth begins inside the clove long before the clove is even planted. Cloves are actually swollen leaves, but no one would dream of calling them leaves. (Botanists call them “fleshy skins”!) Technically, the cloves are small bulbs within a bulb, but no one, not even botanists, ever refer to cloves as bulbs, and no one knows why cloves are called cloves!
Few people know how or when cloves are formed either. A common misconception, even among garlic growers, is that a large, solid bulb grows and then divides into cloves right before harvest. Actually, tiny vegetative buds occur on the surface of the true stem at the base of the inner leaves. Some of the buds are fertile – another strange term, since they never actually get fertilized! Specialized leaves swell into cloves around each fertile bud in mid-spring in order to nourish and protect the bud through its period of rest and during its early growth. Another interesting tid-bit! Most people assume garlic bulbs lie “dormant” until they’re planted, but according to botanists, they only “rest”.
4. Grocery store garlic does not taste like true garlic.
To further add to the mystery of garlic, softneck garlics (the kind grown in your local grocery store) are so “hot” that the true garlic flavor is overwhelmed. In order to truly taste real garlic, you have to try an ophioscorodon garlic, a half-wild hardneck variety that still produces a flower stalk, has such a short shelf life that you pretty much have to grow it yourself, or get lucky at a local farmers market to get it on your table.
5. Unlike most plants, vegetables and herb, garlic does not have any kind of universal nomenclature.
Garlic is an amazingly simple yet highly deceptive plant. What you see and hear about garlic really depends a lot on whether you’re talking to a botanist, a farmer, a produce buyer, or a layperson, all of which will also change depending on what part of the world you are from, since each geographic region has it’s own specific brands of confusion and misnomers.
Generally speaking, garlic has been relegated to the cultural status of a sub-food, somehow less than a food, at least in the highly visible public eye. Despite its wide and varied uses, not to mention its history, (which started long before humans even invented history!) garlic is still a very confusing little plant to gardeners!
6. Garlic ranks as the second most important allium crop in the world behind only onions.
The species of garlic are divided into two subspecies (often called varieties) whose botanical Latin names are a mouthful – ophioscorodon (hardneck) and sativum (softneck). Ophio garlic, which is also known as “topsetting” evolved directly from the wild garlic known as Allium longicuspis. Softneck garlic – the most commonly grown garlics in the world, and what you buy in the grocery store – may also be called “Artichoke”, or sometimes “Italian” or “Silverskin” garlic, and these evolved later from the ophio garlics.
So, despite stems that aren’t really stems, flower stalks without noticeable flowers, cloves that are really leaves (or bulbs.. or fleshy scales… or whatever..), fertile buds that are never fertilized (so how did they get fertile?!), and a plant that never dies no matter how old it gets, I think it is fairly safe to say that garlic is a crazy plant, am I right?!