A cloned crop like garlic has limited potential to become localized to a particular garden. The glorious success of landrace gardening happens because genetically diverse crops are subjected to survival-of-the-fittest and farmer directed selection. After a while, the varieties get closely aligned to the local environment, the farmer’s way of doing things, and the culinary habits of the community.
In the 2011 growing season I was chatting with a few other plant breeders. We decided that we should be growing garlic from pollinated seeds so that we can create new varieties of garlic that can be regionally adapted. It’s a daunting task, because very few varieties of garlic make seeds any more.
What’s Wrong With Garlic?
Garlic is a crop that has been grown primarily through cloning for perhaps ten thousand generations. When scientists did genetic analysis on garlic they found that plants with the same genetics were being offered under many different names. This indicates that there are far fewer varieties of garlic being grown than it would appear by looking at a list.
Cloned crops create a food-security risk, because when a pest finally overcomes a variety’s defenses, it overcomes the defenses of every clone of that variety. Entire crops can be lost in a single season. Genetically diverse seed grown crops are much less susceptible to crop failures.
As a result of being cloned for eons, the small amounts of normal chromosome damage – that are typically eliminated through sexual reproduction – have accumulated in garlic. The vast majority of varieties have accumulated so much damage that they have lost the ability to flower or to produce seeds.
Some people use the term “seed garlic” to describe the cloning process. They are dealing with bulbils or cloves: vegetative parts of the plant. When I use the term “true garlic seeds” I am referring to pollinated seeds in which a pollen grain fertilized an ova in a flower. Growing plants from seeds instead of cloning also tends to reduce virus contamination.
Finding Fertile Garlic
Before starting this project, I was already growing many types of garlic. My collaborators sent others. [1,2] Rather than removing the scapes I allowed them to attempt to flower. Then I screened them for the ability to set seed. I collected a total of three seeds from a couple thousand garlic plants. Germination rate of first generation garlic seeds is very low, so I didn’t get any plants from those seeds.
Dr. Maria Jenderek helped us to identify and Barbara Hellier helped us to acquire accessions from the Agricultural Research Service that are known to produce at least a few seeds from time to time. These varieties were mostly collected in the USSR. They are from near the center of origin of garlic and have retained more of the ancestral traits including an ability to make a few seeds if conditions allow.
Ted Jordan Meredith and Avram Drucker  helped us to identify and acquire other varieties that have produced seeds in their gardens. Ivan W. Buddenhagen  shared pollinated seeds grown in his garden in Oregon.
We have had the most success with varieties that are classified as “purple striped” or “marbled purple striped”. Last growing season, a couple of growers reported stunning success with Chesnok Red.
In a garlic scape, flowers form intermingled with bulbils. The bulbils tend to strangle the flower stems. A few seeds might be formed anyway on some varieties. We have found that more seeds form if we limit the competition by removing bulbils from the flower stalk. I do this with my fingernails by raking out the bulbils. Others prefer to use tweezers.
The ease of the process varies widely between varieties. Some have lots of little tiny bulbils. Some have a few larger bulbils. Whether small or large some are tightly held while others fall out easily. So far my most seedy variety, PI 540319, has large bulbils that are easy to remove. The best possible scenario.
Overcoming Fertility And Other Barriers
Some varieties of garlic are female sterile, and some produce sterile pollen, or only partially viable pollen. In an attempt to overcome these barriers I plant different varieties close together, hoping that the pollinators will spread fertile pollen between plants. I am also weeding out varieties that completely fail to even go through the motions of flowering.
I never would have imagined when we started this project that the biggest obstacle to overcome would not be related to genetics, biology, or growing conditions. We have experienced widespread opposition to our efforts from government bureaucrats who have went so far as to confiscate plants and interdict shipments of seeds. The beautiful plant with 3-feet-long leaves shown in the photo growing in a pot was destroyed by a government bureaucrat.
I have sometimes thought of gardening as a subversive activity. It appears that growing new varieties of garlic is even more so. A word of caution to those joining our effort: Perhaps public posts about sharing seeds or bulbs isn’t the most prudent activity. And people clamoring for seeds or bulbs may be doing so under false pretenses.
We have had good success sowing garlic seeds in mid-winter. Cold-frames or the Winter-Sown method have produced the best germination rates. I highly recommend sowing into weed-free potting mix, because garlic start off slowly and it’s easy to loose the seedlings in a weedy soil.
I managed to grow 8 new garlic varieties from pollinated seed. I collected 26 seeds. More than that were produced, but I dropped the bowl containing the seed into the lawn… Some collaborators are being even more successful.
It’s a been a ton of work to obtain a few new varieties. But they are varieties that have never before been grown in the history of the world. That’s something to smile about.
We have identified varieties that produce true garlic seeds, and we are learning and sharing methods for growing garlic from pollinated seed. Eventually we expect to be creating hundreds or thousands of new garlic varieties per year. At that point, they can become locally-adapted landraces. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
 HomeGrown Goodness Plant Breeding Forum: True Garlic Seed
 Seed Savers Exchange: Growing Garlic from True Seed
 Growing Garlic from True Seed, Meredith & Drucker
 Ivan’s Garlics
 Links to Scientific Papers On My Web Site
Photos by R. Wagner, K. Edwards, J. Lofthouse
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively. Read all his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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