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Hello, and welcome to The Open Oak!

Today’s featured herb is one that you’re probably intimately familiar with through cooking, or even the popular folklore surrounding it- garlic! My hometown of Gilroy, California likes to call itself the “Garlic Capital of the World” due to Christopher Ranch, a family-owned company that provides much of the garlic for the Western United States and beyond, so this herb subsequently holds a sentimental place in my heart. I grew up attending and volunteering at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, where there is food stand after food stand of the most delicious dishes, all involving garlic in one way or another- if you go, you have to try the garlic ice cream, just to say you did! Gilroy is jokingly referred to as the safest town when it comes to the vampire threat, so they have that going for them too!

Not only is garlic a staple in my kitchen due to its flavor, but for its medicinal attributes as well. Its reputation in folklore as an amulet to ward off vampires and other evil creatures is a result of its powerful healing abilities, and antimicrobial properties. Continue reading below to learn a little more about this everyday herb, one that’s likely sitting in your kitchen right now!

Garlic’s Traditional Uses

Allium sativum, better known as garlic, is native to the land stretching between the Mediterranean and China, but is now grown around the globe (hi Gilroy!). It dates as far back as Ancient Egypt and Greece, known for its ability to strengthen the immune system as well as ward off evil spirits. Garlic was placed at the crossroads by travelers as an offering for Hecate, the goddess of the wilderness, magic and childbirth, and for protection from demons, as it was believed that it would confuse them and make them lose their way. Greek midwives would hang braids of garlic above the doors to prevent evil spirits from entering and interfering in the birth, and Roman soldiers would consume cloves of it before battle to give them courage.

In Western Europe it functioned similarly, protecting against the evil eye when kept in a coat pocket, hung in home windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes. Not only did it protect against vampires, but werewolves, witches, demons, evil spirits and curses were all rendered harmless as soon as they met the “stinking rose”. In regards to health, there’s an old Welsh adage that promises if you “eat leeks in March and garlic in May, then the rest of the year, your doctor can play”, and I’m planning on following that advice!

Medicinally, garlic’s track record is just as impressive. Sanskrit documents that detail the use of garlic as medicine date back 5,000 years, and medical manuscripts in Chinese go as far back at 3,000. Hippocrates recommended cloves of garlic for infections, wounds, cancer, and digestive disorders, and Pliny included garlic in a list of 61 remedies for a multitude of ailments, from the common cold to leprosy, epilepsy and tapeworm. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all used garlic for medicinal purposes at one point or another.

Identifying Garlic

Allium sativum can grow up to 4 feet tall, and produces hermaphrodite flowers that are pollinated by bees and other winged insects. The bulb is the most commonly used part of the plant, and the only part used medicinally; it comes in a variation of purples and whites depending on the type. The bulb is divided into pieces called cloves that have a pungent, spicy flavor when eaten raw, but become savory and sweeter when cooked. The leaves and flowers can be eaten, but do not provide any significant medicinal value.

There are two subspecies within A. sativum, ophioscorodon and sativum. Ophioscorodon, or hard-necked garlic, includes porcelain garlics, rocambole garlic, and purple stripe garlics, while sativum, or soft-necked garlic includes artichoke garlic, silverskin garlic, and creole garlic. Your common kitchen garlic, if you live in the US, is more than likely the var. sativum Monviso seed line grown by Christopher Ranch (they supply much of the US) which traces its origins back to the Piedmont region of Italy.

Healing Attributes of Garlic

In more recent medical history, herbalists have used garlic as a means to fight off colds, flus, worms, and bacterial infections, relying on its potent antimicrobial nature to do the heavy lifting. It was a potent ingredient in the Fire Cider I made the other day, and you can find it in all sorts of homemade immune-supporting remedies, its key actions being antibiotic, antifungal, blood-thinning, counters cough and respiratory infection, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and supports beneficial intestinal flora. Additionally, according to American Folklore, “in a study conducted in Russia in 1955, garlic extract used therapeutically was found to bind with heavy metals in the body, aiding their elimination. Workers suffering from chronic lead poisoning while working in industrial plants were given daily doses of garlic extract and saw a decrease in their symptoms. Other experiments that took place in Japan using mercury and cadmium also found that garlic bound with the heavy metals.”

Swallowed whole (one small clove), eaten crushed in food, or taken as a tablet, garlic strengthens the body’s ability to fight infection, and aid in a timely recovery. Take a look at the list below to see a few different ways garlic can aid your health and healing!

  • Cold, Cough, Sore Throat Remedy- mix one crushed clove of garlic with freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1-2 teaspoons of warmed honey, and a pinch of fresh ginger root or dried ginger powder. Mix with 1/2 cup of warm water, and drink up to 3 cups a day!
  • Earache- ointment of garlic applied locally
  • Digestive infections- a capsule, or a whole clove eaten with food
  • Worms- a capsule, or a whole clove eaten with food
  • Supporting heart and circulation- a capsule, or a whole clove eaten with food
  • Warts- local application of a raw, crushed garlic clove

Always follow the dosage instructions recommended by the manufacturer if you are purchasing garlic in tablet or capsule form, but one to two cloves a day is usually all you need when you’re consuming it whole + raw! If you are swallowing the clove by itself, taking it with a sip of milk helps cut down on the infamous garlic breath that typically follows consumption 🙂

Additionally, garlic is often combined with Echinacea to magnify the anti-microbial actions of both herbs, and I’ll be profiling Echinacea later this year, so stay tuned!

I hope you enjoyed reading this latest plant profile as much as I enjoyed compiling it! Please feel free to leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below, as I’d love to hear what you have to say about this helpful herb, steeped in both folklore and healing properties. Til next time, my floral friends!

Best wishes and willowbark,

Katharine