plant profile: garlic (allium sativum)

spring has finally made its way to the midwest, evidenced by the daffodils blooming and the garden waking up. a few weeks back i planted spinach, arugula, peas, calendula, radishes, and parsley, and in the last 48 hours these food plants have started to emerge, pushing through the crusty soil. today i’m celebrating the return of spring (and my return to blogging after a month off) with the first in a series of plant profiles. as a self-taught herbalist, i try to study as much about plants as possible, and i thought it would be fun to share my studies with y’all in the form of blog posts! i’m kicking off this series with one of my favorite plants to grow and use – garlic. 

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garlic felt like a good place to start because most of us use garlic in one form or another. you can buy powdered garlic or garlic salt in the spice aisle of any supermarket, and  minced garlic is a common seasoning in our food. garlic is a prominent food ingredient in cultures all over the world, and perhaps most famously in italian cooking. i have italian heritage and consider garlic to be an ancestral plant which i have a strong affinity for. i have memories of my italian grandfather using garlic as an anti-microbial, taping whole sliced cloves to open wounds. we also ate the cloves whole, stuffed into olives or on top of bread.

garlic (allium sativum) is a hardy, bulbous perennial plant in the same family as onions and leeks. garlic is thought to be native to central asia, but is cultivated all over the world. it has been part of the human culture as a food, seasoning, and medicinal herb for at least 5,000 years.1 garlic has a pungent and characteristic taste that can even be spicy when it’s consumed raw.

garlic is easy to grow. in the southern united states, cloves can be planted in the fall and mulched with leaves for a spring time harvest; in the north, garlic can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in early spring. there are two classes of garlic that are grown in the us – hardneck varieties and softneck varieties. hardneck varieties produce a center stalk known as a scape and fewer cloves per bulb; softneck varieties produce more cloves in a couple concentric circles. in the past, we have grown a lot of garlic in a small (3×4 ft) bed with great yield. you can buy “seed” garlic from any supplier – they will ship you two heads of garlic, and you break off and plant the cloves individually. garlic can be planted densely, allowing for a high harvest from a small space. if you don’t have space to grow garlic, it can be found at literally any supermarket in the states. look for heads that are firm and don’t show signs of sprouting.

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garlic has a rich history of use. by at least the year 500 BCE in china, garlic was used as a medicinal herb for treating colds, digestive ailments, and fungal infections. it was also used in china and india for improving circulation. in many cultures, garlic was used to treat infections but it wasn’t until 1858 that the famous microbiologist louis pasteur investigated and verified garlic’s anti-bacterial properties in his lab.2 garlic was even used during WWI by the british to dress wounds when the supply of sulphur drugs ran out.

i know garlic best as a treatment for colds and flus as well as an anti-microbial powerhouse. garlic can be used externally applied directly to the skin as an anti-bacterial and anti-viral. taken internally, garlic is prescribed for symptoms related to colds – nasal congestion, cough, and sore throats. rosemary gladstar writes that garlic stimulates the production of white blood cells, boosting the bodies immune function.3 this is how i use garlic – as an immune tonic. i find that regular use helps to improve sluggish circulation and protects me against colds and flus.

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garlic is a classic example of food as medicine. we eat garlic virtually every day, adding it to most sauces, stir-fry’s, and salad dressings. minced garlic is the perfect seasoning for roasted vegetables, eggs, rice, and pasta. we know that herbs work best through regular use, so incorporating garlic into your meals is the best way to utilize its immune-boosting power. i enjoy the pungency of raw garlic, but this could give some folx an upset stomach. cooking garlic removes some of the pungency and may render it more palatable if this is an issue for you.

homegrown garlic is easy to store, and will keep all through the winter if stored properly. you could braid the necks all nice, but we simply cut the stalks off and hang the garlic in a breathable bag near (but not in) the kitchen. for this reason, garlic makes a great herb to use in the winter when local, nutrient dense produce is not available. i try to be more aware and take more herbs through the winter months because i know i’m not getting the same nutrition from the food i’m eating.

in addition to using garlic in the kitchen, i have two go-to herbal recipes for garlic. the first is fermented garlic honey (shown above) which combines garlic, the anti-microbial properties of raw honey, and the probiotic power of fermentation. the second recipe is fire cider. we make our cider with A LOT of garlic in addition to many other medicinal foods steeped in raw apple cider vinegar.

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i want to wrap this article up by talking about some magickal applications for garlic. from breverton’s complete herbal: “garlic was placed by the greeks on piles of stones at crossroads as a supper for hecate, their  goddess of magic, witchcraft, and the night, moon, and ghosts. according to pliny, garlic and onion were invoked as deities by the egyptians at the taking of oaths. it was used as currency and clay models of bulbs were placed in king tut’s tomb. during the building of the pyramids, the workers were given garlic daily to imbue them with vitality and strength.”4

of course we all know about the association between vampires and garlic. it is said to protect against vampires, all you have to do is hang garlic in your home. perhaps the strong odor offends them. vampires aside, garlic is used as a protective plant, likely derived from its anti-microbial qualities. italians use garlic to protect against malocchio, or the evil eye, which to them is the worst spiritual affliction one can suffer from.

i encourage all my readers to start using garlic in your cooking if you don’t already! also, please share ways in which you like to use garlic in the comments below 🙂

sources

  1. desk reference to nature’s medicine by stephen foster and rebecca l. johnson.
  2. ibid.
  3.  rosemary gladstar’s medicinal herbs by rosemary gladstar.
  4. breverton’s complete herbal by terry breverton.

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