I remember a long-distance call with my mother a few years ago during which she gushed about my 3-year-old nephew. She was telling me how much he still enjoyed being cuddled and then paused.
“But,” she hesitated, “Frequently the smell of garlic coming off of him is almost overwhelming. He just loves the stuff!” My nephew has eaten a plant-based diet since he has been on solid food and he is one of the healthiest kids I know. Instinctively, he knew that garlic was one of the world’s superfoods.
Garlic lovers know how good this member of the Amaryllidaceae family tastes in myriad preparations. If you are not a fan of garlic, chances are you just haven’t tried it in a way that suits your tastebuds.
A Brief History of Garlic
Garlic may be the original wonder drug. Remains of the plant have been found in caves used by humans 10,000 years ago. A Sumerian clay tablet dated from 3000 B.C. contains a chiseled prescription for garlic. Its use was widespread throughout the ancient world from southern Europe to China, and the herb was revered by both the Egyptians and Greeks for its ability to ward off disease and increase strength. During World War I, garlic was used to treat wounded soldiers’ infections as well as amoebic dysentery. Over the last century, scientists have confirmed the antibiotic properties of garlic through numerous studies illustrating its effectiveness against diverse fungal, bacterial, viral and yeast strains.
Affectionately known as “the stinking rose” for obvious reasons, garlic comprises a multisegmented bulb, each of which is called a clove, and thin green leaves that typically grow between 1 and 2 feet tall. At the height of summer, small white or pink flowers appear on the plant. Many varieties of garlic are available to grow from bulb or clove. A study conducted by the USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation assessed 211 varieties including Allium longicuspis, wild garlic found in Central Asia from which A. sativum (or common garlic) is descended. The study confirmed that, while various sources often give the same type of garlic a different name, there is actually substantial diversity in chemical composition in the garlic family.
Science aside, gardeners can simply remember that these genetically similar yet unique plants can be categorized as “hardneck” and “softneck” types. Hardnecks are considered more aromatic and flavorful, and they grow edible flower stalks called scapes. Softnecks are commonly sold in grocery stores due to their longer shelf life. Both are easy to grow and make a wonderful addition to any garden.
Garlic is a relative of the onion, scallion, leek, chive and shallot, and it grows in similar conditions. Garlic likes full sun but not intense heat, high humidity or heavy rainfall. New garlic plants need regular moisture to develop their roots. Once they are established, the plants thrive in rich, loose soil that drains well. Hardneck varieties tend to fare better in colder climates.
Garlic can be planted in early spring or mid-autumn prior to the first frost. Push bulbs into the soil about 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. If you are growing rows of garlic, leave about a foot between each row. Do not overwater garlic or you risk rotting the bulbs.
Harvest times vary based on the season of planting and the climate of your area—garlic planted in fall is typically ready for harvest early summer through late summer. When about half the leaves have yellowed, check a few plants by gently digging around the base to see if the bulbs look to be substantial size—an indication it’s time to harvest. The change of the leaves’ color usually means the garlic is ready. When your garlic bulbs are ready, carefully loosen the soil around them and pull up from the base of the neck. Keep the leaves on the plant, wash the dirt off the bulbs and let them dry in a warm place for a couple of weeks. Once they are thoroughly dry, you can string them together and store them in a well-ventilated area with low humidity.
Super Food, Super Flavor: Few savory dishes won’t benefit from the addition of garlic. It is a staple in many European and Asian cuisines. The proliferation of garlic-themed restaurants and food shops is a testament to its diverse and delicious contribution to our diet. For a quick and easy dish that puts garlic to good use, try our Garlic Lentil Bowl Recipe.
Raw benefits: Although cooking or roasting garlic mellows its flavor and aroma, garlic offers more nutritional and medicinal properties in the raw state. Try recipes that use uncooked garlic such as salad dressings or aiolis. Recent research also suggests that crushing garlic and letting it stand for 10 minutes before cooking (allowing time for oxidation to occur) preserves much of the nutritional value otherwise lost when garlic is heated.
Germ Buster: Garlic contains several compounds that battle a wide array of cold and flu viruses, according to James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy. One of garlic’s most healthful enzymes is allicin, a powerful, natural broad-spectrum antibiotic.
Cancer-Fighter: A natural antibiotic, allicin is also an antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage that can be a precursor to cancer. Researchers have concluded that garlic has the ability to inhibit tumors and lower risks of esophageal, stomach and prostate cancers. Research has also shown that allicin can slow the proliferation of human gastric cancer cells and even cause cancer cell death.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is the international bestselling author of 60 Seconds to Slim and Weekend Wonder Detox. Visit her website, Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook.