When perusing the gourmet garlic at your local Farmers Market you may notice that the bulbs, although often bearing a cultivar name such as 'Music' or 'Inchelium Red,' tend to be of two distinct types: those that have a stiff stalk attached to the bulb, and those that do not.
In the early 1990s, Ron Engeland proposed that garlic be separated into two subspecies based on their ability to bolt. Bolting strains were classified as Allium sativum subsp. ophioscorodon and non-bolting as Allium sativum subsp. sativum. Later research proved that classifying garlic was much more complicated (for a comprehensive overview, please refer to The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith), however the rough separation originally proposed by Engeland is still popular, although less formally and more commonly referred to as ‘hardnecks’ and softnecks’.
The most obvious difference between hardneck (above) and softneck (below) garlic is their appearance. Hardnecks are so-called because of the long flowering stem growing through the center of the bulb. Called a scape, this stalk produces an umbel, a terminal pod within which bulbils are produced. Bulbils can be removed from the scape when mature and planted in the same way as cloves, although they usually need two or more season’s growth before they produce a differentiated bulb. The bulb surrounding the scape of a hardneck variety consists of a single layer of regularly-shaped cloves. The number of cloves vary between hardneck cultivars, but tend to fall between four and twelve.
Softneck cultivars on the other hand, yield a greater number of cloves and a generally larger bulb. Usually softneck varieties produce between eight and twenty cloves per bulb, while some cultivars contain cloves numbering in the high thirties. Irregular in shape, the cloves are present in two or more concentric layers, each wrapped in their own skin. This much higher number of cloves is likely a reproductive compensation for the lack of a flowering stalk - rarely will a softneck cultivar produce bulbils. Under stressful conditions a softneck type may partially bolt and grow a short pseudostem which will subsequently produce a small number of bulbils. These bulbils can be seen bursting out just above the bulb, or even be found clustered within the bulb itself.
Generally speaking, hardneck varieties tend to grow and thrive better in regions with more severe winters. They require a greater period of vernalization than softneck cultivars, so a prolonged period of cooler weather is ideal. In turn, softnecks tend to perform in regions where the winters are significantly milder. We are extremely lucky in our location in British Columbia: our weather is cold enough to amply accommodate our hardneck cultivars, yet mild enough that we get good results with our softneck cultivars as well.
This information, though interesting to the grower, holds little intrigue for the consumer. What may pique their interest, however, are the culinary differences between the two groups. For starters, the scapes of hardneck varieties are edible, though often underutilized in Western cuisine. Also referred to as garlic spears, stems or shoots, they are cut for eating while they are still young and tender. Scapes are versatile as both a vegetable and a seasoning due to their fresh, delicate garlic flavor, and are slowly but surely gaining in popularity.
Hardneck cultivars tend to have a more complex flavor profile than softnecked ones, being richer, spicier, and generally more ‘garlicky’. Hardneck cultivars also tend to have a larger average clove size, which, due to their plumpness, regular shape, and thicker skin, are easier to peel. Softneck varieties on the other hand, tend to be milder and more vegetative in their taste. Although delicious when eaten fresh, a great proportion of softneck garlics are used for processing into products, including garlic powder, and as the garlic seasoning in many processed foods. The cloves of softneck cultivars are also more difficult to peel, given their irregular shape and tight, thin skins. That being said, there are few more mouth-watering sights than a big beautiful softneck, drizzled with olive oil, roasting on the BBQ.
The tight layered skins of the softneck cultivars, while slightly more inconvenient when peeling an individual clove, also mean that these garlics tend to store longer than hardneck types. Some varieties of hardneck store for as little as four months, while many softnecks, in the right storage conditions, will stay in good shape for up to nine months, and even to a year in optimal conditions. This is good knowledge to have if you are having trouble deciding which of your bulbs to eat first!
Hardneck and softneck garlics each contain multiple subtypes, which in turn contain many distinct cultivars.
In my next blog post, I will begin discussing the various subtypes within these two groups. Though arguably subtle, there are differences in between these subtypes that may make choosing your cultivars, both for growing and eating, a little easier!