Garlic tales

Last week while I was reorganizing the herb and spice shelf in my pantry, I noticed that the shaker of garlic powder was low. What would garlic bread be without a liberal sprinkling of powdered garlic? And how would spaghetti sauce taste without the zing of chopped cloves? French and Italian cuisine just wouldn't be the same without this pungent herb.

Valued for its tasty bulb and medicinal properties, garlic has been prized since ancient times. It was a staple food given to slaves in Egypt, especially those constructing the pyramids, to sustain their strength. Greek and Roman athletes also munched this odiferous bulb before their competitions to cleanse the blood and give them stamina. Even the Roman legions ate the tangy stuff to make them fierce and strong. Their collective breath alone could probably have wiped out an opposing army in one fell swoop or at least sent them fleeing.

It has long been the belief that garlic oil could cleanse the blood, tone body organs and increase strength and stamina. But garlic goes beyond being just a venerated vegetable, an important seasoning and a medicinal herb; it also has strong ties to the occult. Garlic was the traditional means to ward off the evil eye and witches' curses. For protection, it was placed around rooms and dangled over the baby's cradle. Early midwives hung garlic around the birthing room to protect the baby from disease and witchcraft. In Medieval times, when weddings were considered prime targets for witches and fairies, fending off those ne'er-do-wells took some extraordinary measures. Swedish grooms sewed sprigs of garlic, thyme and other strong scented herbs into their clothing for protection. To find the groom at the reception, all you had to do was follow your nose.

Everyone knows that garlic is the most potent plant repellent to use against vampires—just watch any Hollywood horror movie. Garlic was considered such a strong charm against evil that it was even placed in King Tut's tomb to keep away evil spirits. Unfortunately, it doesn't work on archeologists.

It was garlic's smell that was considered the source of its power. Curiously enough, that is also its curse. But it isn't just humans who don't care for the smell up close and personal, nearly all insects avoid garlic like the plague, which makes this zesty herb effective as a biological insecticide.

Both garlic and onions were favorite flavorings in the Middle Ages where they were used to disguise the taste of rotting meat. (Remember there was no refrigeration back then and food was hard to come by.) Garlic has been used as an aphrodisiac and touted as an antidote for everything from intestinal worms to high blood pressure. The wonder of it all is that garlic's health benefits outweigh the social offenses of garlic breath.

Garlic's bactericidal action makes it a good disinfectant. It can fight off colds, fever, sore throats and intestinal infections like typhoid and dysentery, as well as a host of other maladies. Today, modern nutritionists and medical researchers are beginning to believe more and more in the power of garlic. In 1991, a German researcher proved that garlic lowers cholesterol by as much as 12 percent. He used the dried concentrate in his research. The active ingredient in the herb—allicin, is responsible for this amazing effect on blood, however; according to the Royal United Hospital in England, few over the counter garlic supplements contain allicin today because of the way it is processed. Usually the garlic oil is extracted with a solvent, which denatures the allicin and makes it ineffective. Try to find the dried concentrate in pill form to avoid garlic mouth or use fresh garlic, if you dare. The amounts necessary to trigger drops in cholesterol and blood pressure are between 7 and 28 raw cloves daily, depending on your weight and the garlic's potency.

Innovative gardeners know that the antibiotic properties in garlic help control diseases in the garden like: downy mildew, cucumber and bean rust, bean anthracnose, early blight of potatoes, brown rot of stone fruit and bacterial blight of beans.

Garlic, like its cousins, chive and onion, belongs to the Allium genus. Growing this botanical wonder is easy. The culture and fertilization of garlic is essentially the same as onion. Garlic is grown from the cloves or from bulbils (the little cluster of bulbs that form at the top of the plant).

Huge garlics are sometimes found with the produce at the grocery store. They're called Elephant Garlic and they are five to ten times the size of a normal garlic bulb. Elephant Garlic has a milder flavor than regular garlic and can produce a bulb weighing as much as one pound! These gargantuan bulbs can be ordered through nursery catalogs.

You can plant garlic now, but the bulbs won't get very big. Cool weather is needed to raise big garlic bulbs. Garlic is usually planted in the fall or early spring (March) and harvested in late summer. Think about adding it to the garden this fall.

To plant garlic, break the bulb up into individual cloves. Plant each clove three to four inches apart and one to two inches deep with the pointy end up. Water them well and mulch the plants over winter. The cool fall and spring weather encourages the plants to grow large before making their bulbs. Larger plants mean larger bulbs later. Grow the cure for anything that ails you.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send your gardening questions to Suzann at:

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