Spotlight on Garlic

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes | In the News

A Midsummer-Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

"And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath."

Latin name - Allium sativum
aka - garlick, onion stinkers, stinking Jenny, devil's posy, poor man's treacle
Family - Liliaceae
Parts used - bulb, cloves
Purported actions - antiseptic, anti-spasmodic, anti-viral, cholagogue, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, hypo-tensive, stimulant
Methods of use
- culinary, medicinal
Constituents - volatile oil, mucilage, glucokinins, germanium

Origins - Garlic is a member of the lily (Liliaceae) family and a cousin to onions (Allium cepa), and chives (Allium schoenoprasum). It dates back at least 6,000 years and has been cultivated for such a long time that it is difficult to trace the country of its origin, but it probably originated in the steppes of central Asia where it grew wild, its bulbs and shoots collected for food and medicine by our earliest ancestors. It was highly prized by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and was used in Europe, Persia and Russia. At one time it was so highly-prized, it was even used as currency.

It is one of the original herbal medicines, believed to increase stamina and promote general good health. Homer wrote of it in the ninth century B.C. De Candolle, in his treatise on the Origin of Cultivated Plants , considered that it was apparently indigenous to the southwest of Siberia, whence it spread to southern Europe, where it has become naturalised, and is said to be found wild in Sicily.

It is supposed to have been introduced into China in the first or second century B.C., and references to it there occur from the 15th century onward. Europeans, especially those of the countries touching the Mediterranean, have used it commonly for two thousand years and more.

It is widely cultivated in the Latin countries bordering on the Mediterranean. Dumas described the air of Provence as being 'particularly perfumed by the refined essence of this mystically attractive bulb.'

The first reference to garlic in America is the statement that Cortes fed on it in Mexico. Doubtless it had been introduced into the West Indies or Central America earlier by the Spanish, for it is not native to Mexico. The Indians in Mexico, Peru, and what is now the United States all took up its culture promptly and liked it better than any of the other root or bulb crops from Europe.

Louis Pasteur scientifically determined the antibiotic qualities of garlic. Albert Schweitzer, the famous organ player, Nobel prize and physician, spent many years of his life to cure the least lucky people of Africa, used garlic as a remedy for dysentery and against tuberculosis, typhus and diphtheria.

Description - Garlic grows to a height of about 60 cm. It has narrow, flat upright leaves attached to the base, about one centimeter wide getting thinner towards the tip.

The flower stem bears a round head of pale pink or greenish-white blooms. Sometimes small bulbs can be found in the flowers - these can be planted.

The bulb (the only part eaten) is of a compound nature, consisting of numerous bulblets, known technically as 'cloves,' grouped together between the membraneous scales and enclosed within a whitish skin, which holds them as in a sac. Garlic bulbs can range in size from 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter depending on variety.

Garlic's strong odor is due mostly to a sulfide called allicin.

Attributed medicinal qualities - An old time remedy for almost anything. Garlic is used around the world for cooking and healing. This prized herb possesses antibiotic, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal activity. It is a natural source of selenium, which must be present in the body for proper immune response, and which acts as an antioxidant. It has also been found to contain more germanium, an anti cancer agent, than any other herb. 

It helps the immune system fight colds and 'flu, keeps the digestive organs healthy and even acts as an insect repellent. Applied to the skin, it has antiseptic qualities and will cure mouth ulcers, acne, cold sores and athlete's foot. Ayurvedic medicine considers garlic a good remedy against leprosy.

It has also been used to help relieve congestion in the lungs and kill parasites, such as threadworm and roundworm. It is said to help equalise high or low blood pressure and reduce blood cholesterol. A clove or two of Garlic, pounded with honey and taken two or three nights successively, is said to be good against rheumatism.

History - The English name for Garlic is Anglo-Saxon in origin, being derived from gar (a spear) and lac (a plant), in reference to the shape of its leaves.

The most ancient written evidences about garlic are in the Sanskrit language, where it was defined as “the killer of monsters”. The first useful information was found in an Egyptian papyrus - the Codex Ebers dated back to 1550 BC - about twenty meters long and containing hundreds of medical prescriptions. Garlic was mentioned in about twenty prescriptions mainly as a remedy against insect stings, to relieve headaches and as a relief for pain.

In China garlic is mentioned in the Shih Ching (The book of Songs), a collection of ballads said to have been written by Confucius. The Chinese prized Garlic so much that they used it in their ceremonies and rituals, it is said that lambs offered for sacrifice in China were seasoned with garlic to make them more pleasing to the gods.

In Egypt garlic was considered as a sacred plant (according to Pliny garlic and onion were invocated as deities by the Egyptians at the taking of oaths) and it was given to slaves involved in hard physical work to improve their stamina. In fact it was the staple food of Egyptian pyramid-builders and it was often depicted in hyroglyphics, bulbs of garlic were even found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, probably left there in order to keep away evil. The Bible mentions garlic as a food the Hebrews enjoyed during their sojourn in Egypt.

It was largely consumed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as we may read in Virgil's Eclogues. Horace, however, records his detestation of Garlic, the smell of which, even in his days (as much later in Shakespeare's time), was accounted a sign of vulgarity. He called it 'more poisonous than hemlock,' and related how he was made ill by eating it at the table of Maecenas. Garlic was placed by the ancient Greeks (Theophrastus relates) on the piles of stones at cross-roads as a supper for Hecate, however among the ancient Greeks, persons who ate it were not allowed to enter the temples of Cybele. Homer, however, tells us that it was to the virtues of the 'Yellow Garlic' that Ulysses owed his escape from being changed by Circe into a pig, like each of his companions and Odysseus, on his way home from Troy, is said to have saved himself and his fellow sailors from the sorceress Circe by putting a magic plant moly (believed to be a type of wild garlic) into the wine offered by her.

Arab legend has it that: 'when Satan stepped out from the Garden of Eden after the fall of man, Garlick sprang up from the spot where he placed his left foot, and Onion from that where his right foot touched.'

There is a curious superstition in some parts of Europe, that if a morsel of the bulb be chewed by a man running a race it will prevent his competitors from getting ahead of him, and allegedly Hungarian jockeys will sometimes fasten a clove of Garlic to the bits of their horses in the belief that any other racers running close to those thus baited, will fall back the instant they smell the offensive odour.

The Romans disliked the strong flavor and odor of garlic but fed it to their workers to make them strong and to their soldiers to make them courageous. In ancient Rome the Latin expression allium olere (stinking of garlic) was used to refer to people belonging to a lower social class.

Many of the old writers praise Garlic as a medicine, though others, including Gerard, are sceptical as to its powers. Pliny gives an exceedingly long list of complaints, in which it was considered beneficial, and Galen eulogizes it as the rustics' Theriac , or Heal-All. In olden days, Garlic was used to treat leprosy and in the middle ages it was called a leper “pilgarlic”. It was also believed that it had most beneficial results in cases of smallpox, if cut small and applied to the soles of the feet in a linen cloth, renewed daily.

One of its older, more popular, names in England was 'Poor Man's Treacle,' meaning theriac , in which sense we find it in Chaucer and many old writers. A writer in the twelfth century - Alexander Neckam - recommended it as a palliative for the heat of the sun in field labour. It was also mentioned in several Old English vocabularies of plants from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, and is described by the herbalists of the sixteenth century from Turner (1548) onwards.

It is stated to have been grown in England before the year 1540. In Cole's Art of Simpling we are told that cocks which have been fed on Garlic are 'most stout to fight: and that if a garden is infested with moles, Garlic or leeks will make them 'leap out of the ground presently' (now that I would like to see).

It formed the principal ingredient in the 'Four Thieves' Vinegar,' a protection against the plague, so named because in Marseilles (1726) four thieves who were arrested for robbing corpses credited their immunity to wearing masks soaked in vinegar, garlic and other herbs. In the early 19th century a highly infectious fever broke out in the London slums, the French priests who constantly used Garlic in all their dishes, visited the worst cases with impunity, whilst the English clergy caught the infection, and in many instances fell victims to the disease.

It is not always popular though, on November 21, 1368 King Alfonso of Castile decreed that any knight who ate garlic was banned from the court for 30 days. During the renaissance, garlic was kept away and even banned from the tables of noble people, because of the bad smell it gave to breath, to sweat and intestinal gases.

However it was in great demand during the war, when it was used as an antiseptic. In 1916 the Government asked for as much as could be produced. Garlic poultices were placed on wounds as an inexpensive, and apparently quite effective replacement for antibiotics,

Cultivation - Garlic is a perennial herbaceous plant, but is usually grown as an annual. It is easy to grow, but requires a rich, light and well drained soil and plenty of sun. The soil may be sandy, loam or clay, though Garlic flourishes best in a rich, moist, sandy soil. An old wive's tale is that they should be planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest.

Planted in spring, the the ground should be well prepared and free from all lumps. Divide the bulbs into their component 'cloves' (these cloves act as seeds ). Each fair-sized bulb will divide into ten or twelve cloves. With a dibber plant the cloves separately, pointy side up, about 2 inches deep and about 6 inches apart, leaving about 1 foot between the rows.

Garlic beds should be in a sunny spot. The beds must be kept thoroughly free from weeds and the soil gathered up round the roots with a hoe from time to time. Keep the soil slightly moist but not wet.

When planted early in the spring, in February or March, the bulbs should be ready for lifting in August, when the leaves will be beginning to wither. Should the summer have been wet and cold, they may probably not be ready until September.

Harvesting, preparation and storage - The leaves of the plant will tell you when to harvest, when they start to wither and the tips start to dry out. This is usually in late summer/early autumn. Timing is of the essence, if you harvest too early the cloves will be very small, too late and the bulb will have split.

The bulbs should be dug up rather than pulled to avoid stem injury and handled them gently to avoid bruising.

Hang the plant in the shade allowing the leaves to wither. As the bulbs dry the skin becomes papery and the flavour grows and you can plait the leaves into a string. Brush the dirt off once it has dried (I don't wash the bulbs).

Choose heads that are firm to the touch, unbruised with no nicks or soft cloves and free of mould (powdery patches under the skin). Store unpeeled in an open container in a cool, dry place away from other foods.

Do not refrigerate or freeze unpeeled garlic. Peeled garlic cloves may be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator and garlic paste can be frozen. It can also be preserved in oil, however it should still be stored under refrigeration to avoid potentially-deadly bacterial growth.

Fresh garlic is more difficult to peel. As it ages, it shrivels inside the skin, making it easier to peel, it will also begin to produce green sprouts in the center of each clove. These can be bitter, so discard them before chopping the garlic for your recipe.

Properly stored garlic can keep up to three months.

Culinary Uses - Garlic epitomises gastronomy, it is one of the most used ingredients found in every cooking culture of the world, something that truly binds humanity together.

It turns up in countless spice mixes, seasonings and marinades, such as harissa, the fiery flavouring that gives zip to Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian tagines . Thai cooking would be unthinkable without garlic: look no further than green curry paste and Thai salads. Garlic is crucial to Mexican cooking, particularly recado, the spicy paste which seasons so many dishes. Together with its relative the onion, garlic flavours many Indian curries and, in the Lebanon, a sauce similar to aïoli is much prized. And what of Italy? Italians put garlic in everything, most notably gremolata , the garlic, parsley and lemon zest seasoning which adds last-minute zing to osso bucco .

In Provence, for example, there is a chicken dish cooked with forty cloves of garlic. In Spain, vast quantities are eaten with fish, and most Mediterranean countries have fierce sauces based on pounded raw garlic.

The smaller you chop garlic, the more pungent it becomes. Whole cooked garlic cloves are quite mild, with a nutty flavor.

Recipe - Salmon with Roast Garlic

Magical Uses - Anyone who has watched tv, read horror books or been to the movies knows that garlic repels vampires. It was used as a protection against witchcraft, evil spirits, and vampire bites.

A clove worn around the neck supposedly acts as a good luck charm or talisman. Sailors often carried a clove to protect against shipwreck. German miners carried garlic to protect them against the evil spirits found in mines. Roman soldiers ate garlic and carried it into battle to give added courage. And bullfighters ate a clove of garlic before going into the ring believing it would stop the bull from charging.

What you might not know is that in folklore garlic was used as an aphrodisiac to promote passion. And yet in Mexico, young girls used garlic to rid themselves of boyriends whose attentions were unwanted.

In some places in France it is customary to place a clove of garlic on a child's lips at the baptism ceremony for good health and happiness. And in Mexico Garlic is often hung around the necks of blind cattle to restore sight.

Charm against warts

Other Uses - Pest control, a lotion against baldness, digestive aid, added to feed for chickens to prevent Gapes; a disease of young chickens caused by a small round worm, cloves, when distilled with water, isolate an oil which contains compounds essential in the creation of olefins.


Mohammed: "In cases of stings and bites by poisonous animals, garlic acts as a theriac.  Applied to the spot bitten by the viper, or sting of scorpion, it produces successful results."

Chaucer: "Wel loved he garleek, onyons and eek leekers, And for to drinken strong wyn, reed as blood."

Mountstuart Elphinstone: "The people in places where the Simoon is frequent eat Garlic and rub their lips and noses with it when they go out in the heat of the summer to prevent their suffering from the Simoon."

Lilly: "The herbs which are attributed to Mars are such as come near to redness, whose leaves are pointed and sharp, whose taste is caustic and burning, love to grow in dry places."

Sir John Harrington: "Sith garlick then hath power to save from death, Bear with it though it makes unsavory breath; And scorn not garlick, like to some that think, It only makes men wink, and drink and stink."

Culpeper: "In choleric men it will add fuel to the fire; in men oppressed in melancholy, it will attentuate [weaken] the [melancholic] humour, and send up strong fancies, and as many strange visions to the head; therefore let it be taken inwardly in great moderation; outwardly you may make more bald with it"

Rev. Hilderic Friend: "Each clove of garlic has a sacred power..."

Cervantes: "Do not eat garlic or onions; for their smell will reveal that you are a peasant."

Percy Bysshe Shelley: "What do you think? Young women of rank eat - you will never guess what - garlick!"

Arthur Baer: "There is no such thing as a little garlic."

Marcel Boulestin: "Peace and happiness, begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking."

Sylvia Rubin: "The best thing to do with garlic of course, is to eat it."

New York Yiddish saying: "Three nickels will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat."

Garlic in the News

Garlic could provide cancer drug

Garlic 'beats hospital superbug'

Garlic may repel prostate cancer

Even garlic can be poisonous

Garlic 'fights malaria'

Garlic 'prevents common cold'

Researchers target garlic mystery

Garlic tackles child infections

Raw garlic tackles cancer