Garlic Sex

All nature seems at work.  The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing.  Poor garlic.  No birds, no bees, no sex life.  Garlic's popularity may have cost garlic it sex life.  Today, garlic growers typically remove scapes deliberately to allow the growth of larger bulbs.

Garlic reproduces in three ways, bulb division, bulbils from topsets, and seed.  Garlic growers sometimes refer to garlic cloves (the mandarin orange-shaped orbs that are inside a garlic bulb), as "seed garlic" or “garlic seed”.  Though garlic's true seeds, the product of sexual reproduction, are much smaller than cloves.  Garlic was long thought to be sterile, but in 1875 Eduard Regel described unique flowering characteristics in garlic found in the wild, raising the prospect that some garlic might still be capable of producing true seed.   Ancient hardneck garlic plants grew well where many other plants could not survive. They had strong roots and searched deeply for moisture and nutrients.  Ancient hardneck garlic had a few different means of procreation.  This was garlic's Insurance policy.   In addition to the cloves, garlic had the flowering stalk or scape, which had a plumb bob-shaped umbrella at the end.   Inside the thumb-size vessel was an intricate arrangement of tiny flowers and bulbils which look like miniature garlic cloves.  Asexual reproduction, growing garlic from cloves or bulbils, produces a genetically identical clone of the mother plant.    This can be desirable for securing consistent growth of a hardy plant.  Order Seed Garlic from the GroEat Garlic Farm

Even today, some growers believe that growing garlic from garlic 'seeds' (bulbils) can help the garlic adapt to a new climate, and may result in more robust garlic.  Growing from bulbils can also be an economical way to propagate garlic.  A garlic scape can contain hundreds of small bulbils (depending on the variety of garlic).  In the first generations of garlic seed production, growing garlic from bulbils is not particularly easy and is time consuming.

Which garlic cultivars are capable of producing seed?   “Softneck” cultivars are clearly not candidates, since by definition they do not produce the necessary flowering structures.   Genetic studies have shown that the "hardneck"  Purple Stripe group comprises the most ancestral garlic forms currently in existence.  Some garlic farmers have indicated the Marbled Purple Stripe group have been the most reliably productive, as they generally have a thicker flowering stalk.

Back to the ancient garlic.  As a scape uncoiled and established vertical growth, its umbel begins to mature and swell, filling with developing bulbils and flowers. When the scape becomes nearly straight, the spathe (bract or leaf covering the umbel) slit open.  When the bulbils opened and dropped off, they were carried by the wind and water to a new location, where they took root and established themselves.   It took several years to develop into large multi-colored bulbs.  Some garlic still reproduces via seed as well as asexually, but wild garlic plants appear to strongly favor asexual mechanisms. 


Not only in cultivation, but also in the wild, it appears that garlic’s capacity for sexually reproducing itself may be diminishing.  In other words, garlic's popularity may have cost garlic it sex life.  Slowly, over thousands of years it's bird and bees method of procreating has nearly disappeared. Garlic was a desirable crop and farmers were clever; They knew they could harvest bigger and better bulbs the following summer if they planted the cloves (of exceptionally desirable plants), those with stronger disease resistance, larger bulbs, better tasting cloves, and longer shelf life. These bulbs were often produced by plants with weaker scapes and flower production, since the energy of those plans went into the bulb, not the flower.  As many generations of plants grew, garlic plants with flowers were deselected, or flower scapes were deliberately removed by the clever farmers, to allow the growth of larger bulbs, garlic largely lost the ability to flower and set seed. Some flowers appear in today's hardneck garlic, but they've become impotent.

On August 15th, the garlic bulbs at the GroEat Farm were freed from the dark earth with my grandma’s ancient spade.  The pearly orbs were covered in clods of dirt.  Their papery coverings, sealing in garlic goodness.  I'll save some for eating and the rest for planting next year's crop.   I also kept the scapes on a few of the Purple Stripe garlic.  I typically remove the scapes of garlic to ensure the plant’s energy is directed to the bulb for maximum size.  For garlic intended for seed production, the scapes and the developing umbels must be retained.

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