Grow Red Heirloom Garlic

Reader Contribution by William Woys Weaver
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Image by Couleur from Pixabay 

The following is an excerpt from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver. This definitive, intriguing and educational guide features 280 heirloom vegetables Weaver has grown and saved seed from, as well as recipes, origin stories, and photographs or sketches. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver highlights the importance of plant diversity and walks gardeners through sowing, cooking recipes at harvest and saving heirloom seeds. You can order a CD-ROM of Weaver’s classic book on our Shopping page.

The early American attitude toward garlic may be summed up by Amelia Simmons’s one-line discussion of the subject in American Cookery (1796, 12): “Tho’ used by the French, [they] are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” The discussion of American heirloom garlic is about as long. Simply put, among Anglo-Americans garlic was not well liked. Other ethnic groups used it — the Spanish in the Southwest, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the French in Louisiana — but the Yankee kitchen rarely smelled of garlic unless it was to fumigate for disease. I find this historical disdain contradictory, considering the old Anglo-American love of “rare-ripes,” green bulblets of potato onions that were eaten raw with vinegar. This delicacy was just as pungent as garlic, and a lot harder on the digestion. Nineteenth-century cookbook author Eliza Leslie remarked in one of her books on behavior that garlic was unbecoming because it alluded to certain unpleasant body odors. In an age when people did not bathe with regularity, this may have been the root of the old American dislike for garlic. Now that we do not stink so much, we like to eat it. Of all the alliums grown today, American gardeners are the craziest for garlic, proven medical benefits aside. What many gardeners do not realize is that the elephant garlic, which has gained in popularity recently, is not a garlic at all but rather a type of leek that forms bulbs. It does not have the medical constituents of true garlic. What constitutes a garlic then? There are essentially two types.

All garlics belong to the genus Allium and the species sativum; thus if they produce flowers, they will cross. Crosses will occur in the topsets that form from the flowers, not in the bulbs already underground. I mention this because during gardening workshops, many people are confused about how members of the onion family cross. The species is further divided out into two groups called “softneck” (var. sativum) and “hardneck” or rocombole (var. opophioscorodon). The soft-neck garlics are called braidable varieties because their tops are soft-stemmed and dry into a grass that can be tied together with other garlics to form them into long chains. Garlics are often sold this way in markets, although it is a waste of money if they are a variety that does not store well. The softneck varieties are propagated from bulbs reserved after harvest. All garlics should be planted in the late fall for best bulb development the following year.

The hardneck varieties form topsets on stems that rise up like snakes. The seedhead is covered with a membrane resembling a hood. Before they open, the flowers unroll like the long beaks of cranes; once open, they look like cobras. I trust these descriptions because they were given to me by children who often visit my garden in groups, and children have good imaginations. These hardneck or rocombole varieties are the ones depicted in medieval herbals. They are extremely hardy and may be treated as perennials. However, they thrive better in rich soil, and do better north of 37 degrees latitude. This type of garlic is propagated from its tiny topsets. They are planted in the ground like onion sets and allowed to grow for two years. After that, the bulbs may be dug and harvested. The small ones are returned to the ground and replanted along with a few new topsets. In this manner, the garlic is maintained for many years.

My burden now is to recommend some heirloom varieties that are easy to grow yet have some historical connection with our culture. We have been flooded recently with heirloom garlics from other parts of the world, and many of these are truly culinary surprises. I think, however, that I will choose three red heirlooms, since white-skinned garlics are common in supermarkets. All three of these are available from the seed houses listed at the back of this book. These firms also offer many of the Asian varieties that I have tried, so it would be worth the effort to obtain their catalogs. I think, at last check, that I have 53 different sorts of garlics, but many of them are so rare that they can only be obtained through Seed Savers Exchange. Lastly, my three choices store well, which is a very important consideration. The fancy white-skinned garlics are not always good keepers, as many cooks already know.

German Red Garlic (Rocombole) Allium sativum, var. ophioscorodon 

This is a medieval garlic strain that was brought here by German immigrants in the eighteenth century. It is a vigorous grower, often reaching 5 to 6 feet in height. The leaves are deep green and arranged opposite each other, as shown in the drawing at left. There are usually 10 to 15 doves in a duster. The flavor is robust. The Pennsylvania Dutch use the leaves of fall and spring sprouts in cabbage salads.

I will be offering through Seed Savers Exchange in 1997 or 1998 the Maxatawny Garlic, an extremely rare variety of German rocombole garlic that was brought to Pennsylvania by the Moravians in the 1740s. It originated in Silesia in what is now western Poland and was preserved by the Helfferich family for homeopathic medicines. The bulbs are bronze in color.

Inchelium Red Garlic Allium sativum var. sativum 

One of the most productive of all the heirloom garlics, this softneck variety is also an artichoke type. This means that its bulbs cluster in layers like artichoke petals. The variety was discovered on the variety was discovered on the Coleville Indian Reservation at Inchelium, Washington. It has consistently won high marks (often taking first place) in garlic tastings. From a culinary standpoint, it is probably one of the best of the American heirloom red garlics.

Spanish Roja Garlic (Rocombole) Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon 

Introduced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, this red rocombole type has been consistently popular with kitchen gardeners. The bulbs are about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter with 6 to 12 cloves per bulb. It is popular with many cooks because it is easy to peel. It also has a very fragrant taste, much more intense than that of many white garlics. However, it cannot be grown in areas that do not have cold winters.

Check outHarvesting Our Heirloom Historyby William Woys Weaver to learn how his seed saving lifework began. 

Illustrations by Signe Sundberg-Hall 

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