Herb to Know: Society Garlic

Society garlic is an attractive ornamental plant from South Africa whose leaves have a garlicky odor. Learn more.


| June/July 2003



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Society Garlic Tulbaghia violacea Family Amaryllidaceae Perennial


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.

Growing Society Garlic

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.





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