November 13, 2019

Garlic: Putting Its Best Foot Forward for 5,000 Years

Garlic bulbs

Janine Pineo Photo | Garlic bulbs

• By Janine Pineo •

If you rub this herb on the soles of your feet, you’ll eventually exhale it from your lungs.


My first thought as I read that line from was why would I want to do that, and then I thought how great the human body is. Then I thought that you really want to know what you are putting on your skin if you are going to be exhaling it forthwith.

I suppose if you’ve been a topic of conversation for a few thousand years, then someone is bound to try a few stunts. If you decide to try that little foot-to-lung experiment, you may want to ponder some of the other uses touted over the millennia for this particular plant while you are massaging your soles.

You could:

  • Use it to cure dropsy (otherwise known as edema).
  • Sniff it to revive a “hysterical sufferer.”
  • Grind it up, mix it with “proof spirit” and massage your baldness away.
  • Prevent anthrax.
  • Ease leprosy and smallpox suffering.
  • Protect against plague – at least the one from 1722 Marseilles, France – and infectious fever.
  • Combat asthma, coughing, bronchitis, consumption, whooping cough, rheumatism, epilepsy, dysentery, gout, pinworms and snakebites. Oh, and acne.
  • Lower cholesterol.
  • Fight high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and cancer.
  • Drape it about your neck to ward off those pesky vampires.

Such responsibility. But garlic is strong enough to take it.

I doubt, however, that garlic might cure anything that ails you (mine is only a partial list, mind you) since it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and I don’t know anybody that old.

Except for garlic itself.

Here is a plant that has journeyed around the world – through reigns, empires, dynasties and pestos – all because someone harvested the bulb and then planted the cloves again and again and again for each of all those years.

Think about holding that clove in your hand and realizing you are holding a piece of something that grew from a piece of something from a piece of something from a piece of something for 5,000 years.

Five thousand. Straight from the original. Right in your own hand.

Of course, I was oblivious to this wonderment until I did a little reading earlier this month. Which meant I was out there on Halloween mixing up soil and jabbing cloves into the ground for the second year in a row with about as much reverence as a dog burying a bone.

Actual dogs are pretty possessive. Maybe a squirrel with a nut.

According to the Agricultural Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wild garlic now grows only in Central Asia. Centuries ago, it may have grown wild from China to Ukraine to Egypt, but little is known about garlic production before 1,000 years ago. What is known is that individuals harvested bulbs and planted the cloves to propagate the plant.

Garlic’s name says it all: Allium sativum.

Which means nothing if you don’t speak Latin. According to “Gardener’s Latin,” allium means garlic- or onionlike, while sativum means cultivated or planted deliberately, which certainly has been true for hundreds of years.

Cultivated garlic comes from the cloves, bulbs and topsets (the little bulbs that form where the flower grew), which are considered “clones.”

So there I was, out there on Halloween, unaware I was continuing a 5,000-year tradition of cloning.

Instead, I wondered whether the topsets I threw in from this year’s crop would survive. I wondered whether I had waited too late to cut back the scapes that had given me the topsets in the first place. I wondered whether I would have any luck growing the softneck variety when the hardneck varieties from last fall had done so well.

That’s when I started my investigation and found out all of the aforementioned.

I also discovered that I probably should have cut back the scape, which is the flower stem and topset portion of the garlic plant, long before the topset had time to grow all of those little cloves. If I had, then the bulbs might have been up to 30 percent larger.

Oh, well.

Mostly what I discovered – which I didn’t find in any book or on any website – was how great my home-grown garlic tasted.

I’m thankful it didn’t take me 5,000 years to discover that, just a couple of decades.

And there was no foot rubbing involved.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 2005.