What is garlic?
Garlic is a common name for Allium Sativum. It is a plant in the form of a bulb of the genus allium. In fact, next to the onion, the garlic plant is the most widely consumed allium and it looks like this:
The humble looking garlic is used mostly as a flavouring condiment rather than as a bulk vegetable (with the exception of Garlic Matters readers who do enjoy cooking with garlic in bulk as much as with just a hint of it) due to its intense, pungent flavour which mellows and sweetens with cooking. The closest relatives of garlic include shallot, onion, chive, leek & rakkyo.
There are two garlic varieties: hard-neck (ophioscorodon) & soft-neck (sativum). Those 2 varieties can be easily distinguished by the basic structure of the garlic plant.
The garlic plant grows as an underground bulb, containing cloves, with leak-like looking leaves above the ground. The hard-neck produces an edible scape ended with an umbel capsule filled with tiny flowers and edible bulbils. Bulbils can also be treated as seed garlic and planted back in to the ground. Soft-necks on the other hand, which we mostly find in the grocery stores, do not produce the scape or the bulbils, and are developed from the hard-necks. You can find out more about the detailed structure of a garlic plant here.
According to most botanists who study alliums here is where garlic fits in the plant kingdom:
- Division: Spermatophyta
- Subdivision: Angiospermae
- Class: Monocotyledoneae
- Order: Liliales
- Family: Liliaceae
- Genus: Allium
- Species: sativum
- Variety: ophioscorodon (hard-neck) & sativum (soft-neck)
- Cultivar: …..
Garlic Song, by Larry Tritel 🙂
Although garlic has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes for over 7000 years there always was a bit of a social stigma stuck to this beautifully pungent plant due to its smell caused by the allicin compound produced in the garlic bulb. (It achieves the peak strength of pungency when we crush or mince its cloves.)
The popularity of our stinking rose has dramatically changed after Chester J. Cavallito and John Hays Bailey published their work on Allicin in 1944 (1).
Many further studies (2) have been conducted, on the commonly acknowledged garlic health benefits. Some of these include antifungal, antibacterial, anti-viral and even properties enabling the prevention of some types of cancer.
From the 1950’s onward garlic has grown in popularity and it is now used widely in USA, Asia, Africa & Europe.
There are over 600 sub-varieties of this wonder bulb in the world and even some of the sub –varieties differ when it comes to shape, colour, size, taste, pungency and storability.
There are many garlic supplements available on the market, however not all of them are as effective in terms of health benefits as well as the quality of flavour as the raw garlic.
The garlic plant is known to be hardy, therefore growing garlic not difficult, even in a small home garden. Commercially, there are nearly 25 million tonnes of garlic grown worldwide per year. China is by far the largest producer and responsible for over 80 % of output. Next come India, South Korea, Egypt, Russia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Burma, United States and Ukraine (3)
(1) Cavallito, Chester J.; Bailey, John Hays (1944). “Allicin, the Antibacterial Principle of Allium sativum. I. Isolation, Physical Properties and Antibacterial Action”. Journal of the American Chemical Society 66 (11): 1950. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ja01239a048
(2) Eric Block (2010). Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.
(3) United Nation Food & Agriculture Organization in 2012 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Food_and_Agriculture_Organization&redirect=no