Garlic in History and Culture

Garlic has ancient roots. The word "garlic" comes from Old English and means spear-leek1. Both leeks and garlic come from the onion family (Alliaceae). The plant is thought to have originated in central Asia, used there since neolithic times. It was probably among the earliest of cultivated crops. It spread early, via trade routes, to become a staple flavoring throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Records of it in Egypt show that it was valued as early as 3000 B.C. Clay models of it were even found in the tomb of Tutankhamen.2 It was popular in India among the lower classes. It was thought to be a strong stimulant, even an aphrodisiac. As such, monks were abjured to abstain from it. It was also thought to have medicinal properties that promoted extended life spans, and to cure several diseases3. Today, scientific literature shows that the ancients were correct: garlic is a very beneficial food. In India today, it is considered important as an Ayurvedic spice.

The western ancients of Greece and Rome used it as a spice, but like the Indians saw it as a stimulant. It was taken by troops before battle and athletes before contests. It was used to treat dog bites. Garlic has a long been thought to ward off evil things. Hanging it on the door was supposed to keep off small pox, scorpions, and even evil spirits. Later it would be used as both a mosquito repellent and to ward off vampires. It did not grow wild in the Mediterranean, so garlic was cultivated mainly through cloning (bulb separation).

Garlic was brought to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese, where it quickly became popular. Yet in Great Britain and its American colonies it was shunned because of the strong odor it produced on the breath. It would not become popular in the United States until the great migrations of the late 1800s. Today, garlic is used in cuisine the world over. It is estimated that over 2.5 million acres of land are used in the commercial production of garlic4, along with many additional acres grown in private gardens.

Next Page: How to Plant and Grow Garlic

  1. Etymology Online on Garlic
  2. Googobits on Garlic
  3. Plant Cultures - Garlic History
  4. The Origins and Distribution of Garlic

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