Genus: Tulbaghia violacea
Society garlic is an attractive ornamental plant from South Africa whose leaves have a garlicky odor. It belongs to the lily family — as do onions and garlic — but to a different genus, entirely restricted to Africa, which includes about 24 species. The genus name Tulbaghia honors Ryk Tulbagh, an 18th-century Dutch governor of the Cape of Good Hope; the species name violacea refers to the flower color, variously described as lilac, lilac-blue, pink, purplish-violet or violet. The common name, society garlic, presumably refers to the plant’s clump-forming habit and garlic-smelling leaves. The blossoms lack the pungent odor; those of a related species, T. fragrans, are described as sweetly scented.
Each plant has only five or six leaves 1 foot long by 1/4 inch wide arising from a bulb, and doesn’t make much of a splash. However, a clump of individuals gives the effect of a much larger plant. The leaves of the species are grayish-green, but the cultivar ‘Silver Lace’ has green leaves edged with white, and ‘Tricolor’ has leaves striped with pink, white and green. A leafless stalk 1 or 2 feet tall holds seven to 20 flowers above the foliage in an umbel. The flowers are much showier than those of regular garlic. The blooms are urn-shaped, about 3/4 inch long. Six petals, each about 3/8 inch long, flare out from the top of the “urn,” and six tiny scales form a corona within its throat.
In the herb garden, society garlic looks attractive with plants of contrasting foliage and habit. Any of the creeping or shrubby thymes (Thymus spp.) would complement it, as would the fine gray foliage and tiny yellow flowers of lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). One of the purple-leaved basils or dark-green-leaved prostrate rosemary would form contrasts of another sort.
Society garlic is hardy only to Zone 9. Southern gardeners can grow it year-round outdoors; it tolerates summer heat well and blooms for months. The plants do best in full sun and in light, sandy soil. Though the foliage will be damaged by temperatures below 25 degrees, it grows back rapidly. Set the individual bulbs 8 to 12 inches apart, just below the surface of the soil. The plants fill in quickly under favorable conditions, but they usually are not considered invasive. When they become crowded, dig them up and reset them. A slower method of propagation is to grow them from seed.
Northern gardeners will need to use another strategy to grow this plant. Potted clumps can be moved outdoors in summer and brought inside when cold weather returns. Alternatively, the plants can be transplanted into the ground for the summer and repotted in the fall. The bloom period will be shorter, perhaps July through September; full sun is a must for good flowers. Plants grown in part shade may send up a few flowers, but will be disappointing.
Container-grown society garlic plants need porous, fertile soil. A recommended potting mix is 1 part peat moss, 1 part packaged potting soil and 1 part sand or perlite, plus 3 to 5 ounces of ground limestone per bushel of mix. You will probably want to place corms closer together than if planted in the ground, but you will then need to reset them more frequently.
To maintain potted society garlic, cut off spent blooms and keep the soil moderately moist when the flowers are in bloom, dry if the plants become dormant. In the summer, sink pots to their rims in the ground to help keep them from drying out. Occasionally fertilize with diluted liquid fertilizer.
Society garlic, excellent as an ornamental, has an alter ego in the kitchen. The leaves can be chopped like those of garlic chives and added to stir-fries, salads, soups or egg dishes, wherever you’d like a hint of garlic. Try adding a few snippets to mayonnaise and watercress in a cucumber sandwich.
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