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The World of Garlic
Excerpts from The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredith

Mr. Meredith has graciously given Rasa Creek Farm permission to quote extensively from his most aptly titled tome on garlic, The Complete Book of Garlic. His research is thorough and his writing is fluid and enjoyable. Consider buying a copy as your next present to yourself.

Garlic: Economics and Culture

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"Second only to the bulbing onion, garlic is the most widely consumed allium. It is an important component in many of the world's cuisines. Because of its intense flavor, it is most often used as a flavoring condiment rather than as a bulk vegetable—the dedicated consumption of garlic by enthusiasts notwithstanding.

Worldwide, about 2-1/2 million acres (about a million hectares) are dedicated to garlic production, yielding nearly 10 million tons of garlic each year. Although this amounts to only a tenth of the worldwide production of bulb onions, it is nonetheless an impressive sum given that bulb onions are commonly used as a bulk vegetable and not just as a flavoring component. When we think of garlic production, the image of fresh-market garlic comes to mind, but the prepared-food and dietary-supplement industries are large consumers of dried and processed garlic. In Western cultures the interest in and demand for garlic have increased along with the interest in diverse cuisines and less parochial culinary habits. The health benefits of garlic have also stimulated interest and consumption. From 1970 to 2000 the area devoted to garlic production more than doubled.

Garlic can be successfully grown in a wide range of climates but is ideally suited to climates with some rainfall, sunny dry summers, and fairly moderate winters. In the United States, California readily meets these requirements, and that is where over 80% of all American commercial garlic is grown. Of that, more than 60% is grown for dehydration industries and use in processed food products. Most of the fresh-market garlic on grocery store shelves comes from California, although seasonally, garlic from other countries, notably China, can make a prominent appearance.


"As with apples, all garlic is not the same. One might choose an apple based on personal taste preferences—say a tart, crisp Granny Smith over a sweet, more softly textured Red Delicious—but there are other reasons to choose one apple over another. For example, one might choose to grow or buy an apple that stores particularly well so that it can be enjoyed long into the season, or perhaps an early variety that can be eaten before the other varieties are ready for harvest. One might want an apple that holds up well when cooked in a pie or cobbler, or an apple that is best for eating fresh and crisp. Garlic offers a similar range of choices, but you won't find such a selection at the grocery store—at least not yet."
pg 16

Asia produces most of the world's garlic crop. China alone accounts for two-thirds of the world's output, most of it coming from Shandong. South Korea and India are the next largest producers, each responsible for about 5% of the world's production, followed by the United States, which produces about 3% (Lucier and Lin 2000). The remaining countries in the Top 10 are Spain, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Brazil, and Pakistan. California produces considerably greater yields than most other garlic-growing areas of the world due to the use of irrigation, mechanization, intense farming methods, and choice of high-yielding cultivars that are well suited to the growing climate of the state. The harvested weight per acre in California, for example, is more than five times greater than that in Thailand. California's high-yielding, mechanized bulk production of garlic cultivars with high-soluble solids is ideally suited to the needs of the food processing industry. It is, however, less ideally suited to the culinary needs of the chef and gourmet." (pg 13-14)

Natural History

Where did garlic come from? To the extent that we think about it at all, many of us associate garlic with southern Italian cooking and, if pressed, might conclude that garlic originated in Italy or at least the Mediterranean. We would not be alone in this thinking: early taxonomists also considered garlic to be a mediterranean species. In the mid 1700s Carl Linnaeus offered Sicily as garlic's place of origin, and in 1827, in a monograph on alliums, George Don affirmed Sicily as the origin of nonbolting (softneck) garlic and Greece or Crete as the origin of bolting (hardneck) garlic. Later in the 1800s, however, the prospect that garlic may have originated elsewhere began creeping into the literature.


By 1980 researchers had generally defined garlic's natural distribution as an area roughly delimited east to west by the Tien Shan in the east which forms partial boundaries between China, southeastern Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, stretching westward in a long southerly arc through southern Uzbekistan to Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains, continuing westward through northern Afganistan and into northern Iran and Turkmenistan, where the Kopet-Dag roughly delimits its westward extension. In his landmark lay publication, Growing Great Garlic, Ron Engeland (1991) termed this region "the garlic crescent."


Garlic's origins in the
Tien Shan region of Central Asia

In 1986 Takeomi Etoh reported the discovery of a number of fertile garlic strains on the north-western side of the Tien Shan in Central Asia and concluded that this was garlic's center of origin. Subsequent studies with biochemical and molecular markers that have identified the most primitive garlic strains have affirmed this conclusion: Central Asia is garlic's center of origin, and the area on the northwestern side of the Tien Shan is a likely point of origin.

In 1996 Brian Mathew extended the included area of garlic's natural distribution to encompass a region west and north of the Kopet-Dag, extending the arc of the garlic crescent into eastern Turkey. This expanded area now encompassed what Engeland had already called the extended garlic crescent. (pg 17-18)

Life Cycle and Growth Habitat

"What is garlic's native life cycle? How do the fundamentals of garlic's survival strategy express themselves in the plants we cultivate, and how do cultivated plants differ in their growth habit from wild garlic?

In order to survive the heat, drought, and cold of its native Central Asian habitat, garlic has a relatively short above-ground growth period. This period generally begins in late winter or early spring, after the passing of severe winter cold, and continuing through late spring and early summer. As the end of this growth period nears, garlic forms a bulb to store energy reserves. The above-ground growth dies, and the plant, now existing as a bulb, becomes dormant just before conditions become impossibly hot and dry in later summer. After a period of summer dormancy, the decreasing temperatures and increasing moisture stimulate resumption of underground growth. After the severe cold of winter passes, garlic again initiates above-ground growth to take advantage of the brief period of favorable growing conditions.

Garlic must initiate above-ground growth very early to make the most of the short growing season, but in so doing may be exposed to periods of cold and freezing that would kill tender growth. To content with these conditions, garlic has leaves that have evolved to withstand heavy frosts (though not deep freezing). Depending on the cultivar and growing region, above-ground growth may be initiated in the fall and persist throughout winter, though vigorous growth typically does not occur until spring." (pg 24-25)

Therapeutic Benefits

The use of garlic as a therapeutic agent is woven through history. An ancient Egyptian medicinal manual describes 22 drug formulations containing garlic, and garlic bulbs have been found in a number of Egyptian tombs. A Babylonian cuneiform tablet from 3000 BC includes a prescription for a tonic containing a substantial amount of garlic. Babylonian physicians used garlic as a successful treatment for intestinal worms. They also concluded that diseases were caused by harmful "tiny worms" that the eye could not see, and prescribed garlic as a treatment. or the day, this was an exceptionally insightful interpretation of garlic's antibiotic properties.

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Garlic... good for what ails yer achin' bones.

Throughout history, garlic has often been recommended as a treatment for intestinal worms and hemorrhoids, among other things. Sanskrit medical textbooks known as Ayurveda (Science of Life) date from bout 500 AD,, though their content is likely much older. These textbooks describe garlic as a remedy for many things, including skin diseases, dyspepsia, anorexia, abdominal diseases, rheumatism, and hemorrhoids. In the 1st century AD, Pedanius Dioscurides Anazarbeus, a Roman physician who came from Greece, recommended garlic as a stomachic and diuretic, and as a treatment for hemorrhoids and intestinal worms.

During the Great Plague of London in 1665, garlic reportedly protected many people from infection. Both earlier and later accounts of epidemics also associate protection with the consumption of garlic. According to various accounts, during a plague in Marseilles in 1721, four criminals were released from prison to collect and bury the dead. Although not expected to live long, the four apparently remained healthy, sustained by a mixture of crushed garlic and vinegar or cheap wine, a concoction that came to be called vinaigre des quatre voleurs (vinegar of the four thieves). In another variation of the account, the four thieves were robbing the sick and the dead.  When caught by the authorities they explained that they were protected from the plague by this mixture.

In the 1800s Louis Pasteur was the first to describe the antibacterial effect of garlic juices. In the 1900s the renown German physician Albert Schweitzer treated amoebic dysentery in Africa using only garlic. By the 1990s there were some 1200 scientific research publications on garlic's therapeutic effects. Garlic supplements ranked as high as number two in herbal supplement sales dollars, and number one as the most widely used herbal supplement, with Americans consuming an average of 361 million lbs. (164 million kg) of garlic annually.

The garlic health fad of the last 6000 years or so continues unabated. Modern scientific studies affirm and elucidate what has been known by many cultures for thousands of years: garlic is a powerful and complex natural drug that offers a broad spectrum of highly beneficial therapeutic effects. (pg 53-54)

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