What are the Origins of Garlic - the World Traveller?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
I recently walked through the produce section of our local grocery store. Next to the onions, shallots and chives, I noticed two boxes of garlic from two different local growers including GroEat Garlic Farm. Standing in front of those boxes of aromatic garlic, I felt a tug to go back in time. What are the origins of garlic? Did garlic always look like this? How did humans help propagate the garlic we consume today? Where did garlic grow originally?
According to some sources, more than 600 cultivars of garlic are grown. According to DNA testing and science, garlic can be classified into ten distinct groups including:
Five hardneck varieties called Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, and Rocambole.
Three varieties of "weakly bolting" hardnecks that can produce softnecks - Creole, Asiatic and Turban.
Two distinct softneck varieties; Artichoke and Silverskin.
Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in our history, originating in central Asia, from where it spread across the world. Modern archeologist, botanist and historians are unable to determine the exact time and place of their first cultivations (because this vegetable is perishable and its cultivation leaves little to no trace), however some written records enables us to paint a very interesting picture about its origins. Some writings suggest that garlic was grown in China as far back as 4000 years ago. Egyptian and Indian cultures referred to garlic 5000 years ago and there is clear historical evidence for its use by the Babylonians 4500 years ago.
Garlic is a widely used food source all around the world. Because of its high nutrition value, flavor, antioxidants, minerals, flexibility for processing and the ability to remain edible even after months of reliable storing in cool places, garlic instantly became embraced wherever it appeared. During its journey across centuries and continents, countless botanists managed to improve the composition, look, flavor and size of ancient wild garlic and produce the modern garlic we eat today. By offering its unique nutritional value and wide array of medicinal benefits, garlic was identified as one of the most valuable foods found in nature. With selective breeding, humans turned the original wild garlic into a wide array of popular garlic types that are currently used all over the world.
The region where garlic has grown in the wild is referred to as its "center of origin", since this is the geographic region where the crop originated and, probably, the only place where it flourished in the wild. Today, garlic grows wild in Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). This is the only region in the world where true garlic grows in the wild without the assistance of human propagation.
Sumerians (2600–2100 BC) were actively utilizing the garlic healing qualities, and there is a belief that they brought garlic to China, from where it was later spread to Japan and Korea. Garlic expansion probably occurred in the old world first, and later in the new world.
The journey of garlic across the globe touched every major civilization of the ancient world, and its origins lie in Central Asia. Humans travelling through Central Asia collected wild garlic and carried it with them for later consumption and cultivation. Humans migrating away from Central Asia, carried garlic with them to their new home. These travelling farmers help propagate garlic. This ancient garlic was cultivated by the first garlic farmers outside of its "center of origin". Was it hardneck or softneck, porcelain, purple stripe, red or white? We'll probably never know of the garlic varieties grown long ago. We'll probably never know if these early garlic producers and consumers paid attention to type or variety? It is a rather modern desire of only the last few hundred years to maintain detailed descriptions of garlic varieties.
Bring it With You. Garlic Propagation and Migration
As populations grew in Asia, the movement of people from that region of the world, to new places, increased. There are many economic, social and environmental factors connected to this migration. The flows and trends of our ancestors can help explain Garlic's migration and Humans help in garlic propagation. Early garlic aficionados, migrating beyond the original range of wild garlic, carried garlic with them. In order to use garlic year after year, it had to be cultivated. So garlic came to be a yearly crop. Garlic in cultivation today has been propagated asexually by way of cloves, bulbs.
Five - Six thousand years ago, a wild plant called Allium longicuspis grew in abundance in Asia. Allium longicuspis evolved for millennia, eventually shaping itself into the form of the modern Allium sativum, or garlic that we know today. This plant was identified by the ancient Indians who managed to domesticate it around five to six thousand years ago. Around 3000 BC, apparently garlic was introduced to the Babylonian and Assyrian empires. It is probable roving traders and farmers from India, brought garlic to the Middle East and helped spread garlic across neighboring civilizations.
In Egypt, garlic was apparently used by common people, slaves and rulers. Ancient Egyptians honed their skills on healing human ailments, by preparing remedies. All of these desert or semi-desert peoples, who essentially were cattle breeders and nomadic, regularly used garlic. Egyptian royals fed garlic to slaves who built pyramids in an attempt to give them more strength. Inside of the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, garlic was included inside clay pots, and these pots were arranged in the motif of garlic bulbs. Garlic may have been popular due to its antiseptic powers for curing wounds, its ability to prevent gangrene, and its direct source of strength. Garlic was a valuable remedy used as a tonic, roborans, to cure a lack of appetite, common weakness, cough, skin disease, and rheumatism. In foods, garlic was used by the Egyptians as food seasoning, as well as a medicinal ingredient.
Garlic as Medicine
In the year 1548, garlic was imported into Great Britain. Garlic juices were used externally for curing a range of skin diseases and skin flaking, such as dandruff. During the expansion of the Muslim rule across Middle East and Eastern Europe in the 1500 and 1600's, garlic was spread into western and central Europe where it was found to be a powerful medical remedy for plague and smallpox. In 1720, inhabitants of Marseille were saved from the spread of the epidemic of plague. In 1858, Louis Pasteur (the French chemist and microbiologist who discovered the process that we know as pasteurization) wrote that garlic killed bacteria. This article put much public attention onto garlic by demonstrating its antiseptic and antibiotic activity in laboratory conditions. As he maintained, it was effective even against some bacteria, resistant to other factors. He also noted that garlic killed Helicobacter pylori. Because of these findings, garlic was used extensively as an antiseptic and dysentery cure during both World Wars. In 1913, the antiseptic properties of garlic were confirmed in the keeping down of cholera. During the epidemic of influenza in America during 1917 and 1918, people wore necklaces of garlic when going out in public. At that time, antibiotics did not exist. Right around 1944, allicin was isolated from the oily, unstable garlic juice. Scientists later established that allicin had strong bactericide power. Even in diluted solutions, allicin showed antibacterial activity against certain bacteria. In 1947, the chemical formula of allicin was determined.
In recent years, garlic has been found to prevent free radicals and supports body protective mechanisms that destroy free radicals. Researchers have identified and isolated six powerful phenylpropanoids from garlic. In medical research, the antioxidative and antihypertensive effect of garlic has been observed in 20 patients with hypertension compared to 20 patients with normal pressure, who have been receiving garlic for a period of two months. The results have revealed decreased blood pressure, significant reduction levels of nitric oxide and lipid peroxidation, and an increased level of antioxidative vitamins C and E.
Types of Garlic Today
Garlic is widely cultivated, though it is only since seed production became possible in the 1970's and 1980's that garlic can be called a domesticated crop. Although there are many types of garlic, they can be classified into three categories: Softneck (Subspecies: sativum) Hardneck (Subspecies: ophioscorodon) and Weakly Bolting Hardneck. Softneck garlic is the more common garlic found in supermarkets. Softneck garlic does not produce a flower stalk and typically has many small cloves per bulb. Hardneck garlic is more closely related to wild garlic and has larger cloves compared to softneck garlic. The hardneck stalk, is stiff and erect (unlike the stalk of the softneck which is limp allowing it to be braided easily). Hardneck varieties of garlic are usually more flavorful compared to softneck types, and the cloves can be peeled more easily.
Garlic has a long history in the hands of humans. With many thousands of years of development, garlic was grown in many ancient civilizations. Garlic can be grown, harvested and cured easily, and the cured cloves are easy to transport. Because of this, garlic was carried to Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, India, China, and even on the ships of the Vikings. Each distinctive civilization began to use garlic in unique ways and garlic became very important culturally as medicine, as an aphrodisiac, and as part of rituals and spiritual ceremonies. No wonder garlic was cherished, revered and transported to new locations by early nomads, farmers and ancient settlers. During its journey across thousands of years and many continents, countless botanists managed to improve the composition, look, flavor and size of ancient wild garlic and produce the modern garlic we eat today. Garlic is a captivating and well-respected, but little-studied food crop. As we continue to seek a stronger comprehension of garlic origins, and distribution, we hope to better understand garlic, and our own human history.
Philipp W. Simon, USDA, ARS, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706. The origins and distribution of garlic: How many garlics are there?
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Jere Folgert is the owner of GroEat Garlic Farm in Bozeman, Montana. GroEat Farm is a small, sustainable family farm located in the beautiful Hyalite Foothills, in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountain Range. The hardneck varieties that they grow on their farm flourish, due to the combination of the cold winters, temperate summers, moist spring, and the dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Range.