It’s garlic season, and across America (especially in California, the country’s top producer), pickers are currently harvesting millions of pounds of garlic.
Today, we’re only just beginning to understand the science of garlic’s healing properties, but long before microscopes and MRIs, the ancient Egyptians knew they had a good thing in garlic: In fact, most Egyptians probably knew how to grow it. For more on garlic’s ancient and new history, watch the second episode of my How Does it Grow? series, above. Here, five fascinating garlic facts I learned while making the video.
1. Most of the garlic you buy is dried.
Almost all of the garlic we buy in supermarkets has gone through a multistage drying process (see the video for all the juicy details!). If you’re lucky to find it sold fresh — or “green” — at a farmers’ market, this means the garlic has been picked young, while the bulbs are still velvety to the touch and juicy to the bite. Because green garlic has not been dried, its flavor is less concentrated and not as pungent as the garlic we buy at the store.
2. The Chinese have always loved garlic, but now they’ve built an empire out of it.
From ancient medicine to modern cuisine, the Chinese have embraced garlic for centuries. But more recently, China took the crown as the world’s top garlic producer. Millions of pounds of Chinese garlic flood the American market each year (some of it illegally, but that’s another matter). Concerns have been raised about the chemicals applied to bleach it white and to prevent the garlic from sprouting on its journey over. According to Bill Christopher, owner of America’s top garlic producer, Christopher Ranch, the way you can tell the difference between most American and Chinese garlic is by looking at the roots: American garlic has a fringe of roots attached, whereas Chinese garlic has the roots cut cleanly off.
3. Garlic fueled one of the first known labor disputes!
That’s right: Ancient Egypt recorded the first known labor strike in human history when pyramid builders put down their picks in protest after garlic was stripped from their daily rations. (Turns out, their love for garlic went straight up the pecking order to royalty: A handful of garlic bulbs were found in King Tut’s tomb.)
4. What’s up with garlic scapes?
At late-spring farmers’ markets, you’ll often see crates brimming with long, curly, green stalks called garlic scapes. These are the flowering stalks of the hardneck garlic plant. While they don’t actually develop into flowers, the little bulbous sack attached near the end of each stalk does contain garlic seeds. They are notoriously difficult to collect and cultivate into mature garlic plants, and for that reason, most farmers don’t use them. Farmers cut the scapes off so they don’t suck energy away from the growing garlic bulb. To find out what garlic farmers use as their seed, watch the video!
5. Farmers fear the dreaded white rot.
Garlic plants are pretty hardy, but there’s one thing that farmers fear the most: a soil-borne fungus called white rot that can wipe out an entire field of garlic. What’s worse, it’s rarely detected until the bulbs are nearing maturity—so farmers have gone through an entire season of careful cultivation only to lose their crop crushingly close to harvest. To add insult to injury, once a field is infected, garlic (and its cousin, onion) can never be grown there again.