Boundary Garlic is honoured to present an overview of the
classification and history of garlic in North America by Bob
Anderson of Gourmet Garlic Gardens.
Garlic isn't just garlic, there are many different kinds of
garlic and they're almost all different in size, color, shape,
taste, number of cloves per bulb, pungency and storability.
Most Americans aren't aware of the many kinds since they seldom
see more than one kind in the local supermarket. There are said
to be over 600 cultivated sub-varieties of garlic in the world,
although most of them may be selections of only a handful of
basic types that have been grown widely and developed their
own characteristics over the centuries as local growing conditions
Botanists classify all true garlics under the species Allium
Sativum. There are two subspecies; Ophioscorodon , or hard-necked
garlics (Ophios for short) and Sativum , or soft-necked garlics.
The hard-necked garlics were the original garlics and the soft-necked
ones were developed or cultivated over the centuries by growers
from the original hard-necks through a process of selection.
The latest research (2003) shows that ten fairly distinct varietal
groups of garlic have evolved; five very different hardneck
varieties called Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe,
Glazed Purple Stripe, and Rocambole; three varieties of weakly
bolting hadnecks that often produce softnecks - Creole,Asiatic
and Turban, plus two distinct softneck varietal groups; Artichoke
and Silverskin. The Gourmet
Garlic Gardens website has evolved to show this new structure
(It was previously thought that there were only five groups.)
An earlier study classified garlic into 17 isozyme types, but
that didn't work out satisfactorily. Apparently all of the hundreds
of sub-varieties (separate cultivars) of garlic grown all over
the world came from these ten basic groups or sub-varieties
of hardnecks that evolved in the Caucasus Mountains between
the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Their individual characteristics
have been altered over time by careful (or accidental) selection
and changing growing conditions, such as soil fertility, rainfall,
temperature, altitude, length and severity of winter, etc. as
they spread across Asia and Europe and the Asiatics and Turbans
developed in the East, while the Creoles developed in Spain
and southern France and Artichokes and Silverskins developed
Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
This picture of the structure of the garlic family is by no
means final as work continues to define it more
accurately using a larger number of cultivars and
this may lead to the identification of more clusters
How Did All These Garlics Get Here?
A few of the kinds of garlic now in America came in with Polish,
German and Italian immigrants over the centuries, but most of
them came in all at once in 1989. The USDA had been asking the
Soviets for permission to go to the Caucasus region to collect
garlics but permission had always been refused because there
were many missile bases in the area and this was where their
spaceport was and is.
Finally, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1989, they
suddenly invited the Americans in to collect the garlics. They
were under continuous armed guard and were allowed to travel
only at night so they wouldn't see anything of military importance.
They went from village to village along the old Silk Road buying
garlic from local markets and naming the cultivars after the
town or village where they were purchased.
When they got back to the US, they realized they had no gardens
ready in which to plant the garlic (The USDA plans things years
in advance.) so they contracted out the growing to a few private
growers on a share-the-garlic basis. After the crop was harvested
and the USDA got their share, these growers began to trade with
each other and to sell some to friends and other garlic growers
and that is how they came to be available now when they were
not available 15 or 20 years ago. There was no time for adequate
phytosanitary precautions to be made so we don't really know
what kinds of "hitchhikers" might have been brought
in with them.
The above explanation also shows why these garlics are rare
and expensive. Slowly more growers are beginning to grow these
cultivars and as more of it is grown the supply begins to catch
up with the very great demand. Garlic lovers take one look at
these delightful things and they feel an overwhelming urge to
try them. In a few years, these gourmet garlics will be more
widely grown and the price will eventually come down somewhat,
but not as long as all growers are selling out in a short time.
For further information on the characteristics of the different
garlic varieties go to the Gourmet
Garlic Gardens website.