Mary Brown takes garlic seriously.
"It's much more than somethingto eat," she says.
Although she admits to a craving for the pungent taste, she says garlic satisfies more than the palate. It has been proven to be healthy for you, she says. And the folklore concerning its magical qualities, combined with its universality, elevates it to a "grounding essence of life."
Brown's Columbia garden has its share of garlic. She has discovered that the best crops are obtained from planting made now, in September and October. After a few tentative shoots, the plantsoverwinter perfectly here, yielding a good crop around June.
Common garlic, allium sativum, is an unlikely member of the lily family of plants and has its origins in western Asia. It propagates itself bybulbs and seldom produces true seeds.
The garlic "seed" one buys to plant in the garden is really a clove. Each clove, when grown correctly, will transform itself into a whole, multi-cloved head. The long, thin green leaf that grows out of each clove is flat, and, when fresh, contains a milder version of the clove's flavor.
To a garlic aficionado, it is obvious that there are different varieties of garlic. During late summer, for instance, the grocery store yields light pink heads, clothed in pure white papery sheathing, called "CaliforniaLate."
January and February may bring in maroon-sheathed heads ofthe "Creole" variety from Louisiana and Central American. And, for those who frequent ethnic markets, the huge heads of "elephant" garlicstand out.
Garlic varies in pungency and keeping quality, but flavor of every variety peaks about one month after harvest.
Consumption of garlic has been recorded for thousands of years. Clay tablets from Mesopotamia reveal commercial transactions, even garlic recipes,dating back more than 4,000 years. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all used garlic as a vegetable, seasoning and medicine. It was fed to Roman legions to enhance their fighting prowess.
Modern research is verifying many of the medical claims ancient practitioners made about garlic. Hippocrates' prescription of garlic for wounds, infections and intestinal problems was good medicine for the day. Garlic is still a popular remedy for flu and other ailments in many parts of the world, especially in Russia.
On our own continent, the first English and French colonists found American Indians using a wild garlic, probably Allium canadense, for food and medicine.
Allium canadense (meadow garlic or wild onion) is found in Howard County meadows and woods, but it is not as common as the prolific Allium vineale (wild or field garlic). The latter is the weed introduced from Europe that persistently pops up in lawns andgardens in spring and fall.
Although garlic for planting is available at some garden centers and through catalogs, Brown buys garlic for planting at the grocery store. Locally available types usually work just fine, she says, but her favorite came as a gift from her mother in California. This large white garlic is popular in the fields around Gilory, Calif., which calls itself the "Garlic Capital of the World." It is especially flavorful, and keeps well, she says.
Brown separates the heads into individual cloves and plants one clove, pointed end up, every 2 to 3 inches, in rows only 5 inches apart. The tops are barely covered with soil.
Most important, she says is a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch -- dried grass clippings or straw -- to keep the weeds down and the ground moist.The mulch also helps keep the new plants from being pushed out of the soil when the ground freezes and thaws. If the plants rise up, she advises, push them back down.
Although she is not sure how effective it is, Brown fertilized with fish emulsion in early winter and again in March. Because of the mulch, she never had to water the plants.They even survived last spring's scorching May. The bulb begins enlarging in response to the lengthening days of spring. By the end of May, the flat leaves start to turn yellow and die -- the best time to harvest.
Prompt harvesting is important, Brown discovered, because,left in the ground too long, the heads start to loosen and fall apart and become susceptible to mold.
Brown is enthusiastic about braiding the stems and leaves of harvested garlic. The chunky strands addatmosphere to the kitchen and are admired by friends. To braid, the garlic heads, with their leaves attached, are left to dry on a screenin a dry shady place for up to a week, depending on the weather and the humidity.
The trick, Brown says, is to dry the heads long enough that they don't rot, yet start to braid before the leaves become impossibly brittle. Before braiding, the bulbs may need washing or brushing, and trimming. Twelve medium-sized heads make a 6- to 8-inch braid.
Room temperature and dry air are ideal for storing garlic. Some varieties may stay firm and flavorful for up to a year. Refrigerating or storing in plastic bags is not recommended.