Although a member of the onion group, garlic is different in that it grows from a multiple bulb composed of small bulblets known as cloves. The cloves are packed together in a circle covered with a thin white membrane resembling parchment. Leaves are flattened rather than round like onions.
Common garlic, the small type most of us are familiar with is Allium sativum, while the larger elephant garlic is Allium ampeloprasum. The common silver or purple skinned garlic has 7 to 10 cloves per bulb, while the elephant garlic bulbs are larger and are composed of five cloves. Elephant garlic may weigh up to a pound and has a slightly milder flavor. Both are relatively easy to grow, but a little care improves the harvest quality and quantity.
Garlic probably originated in Southern Europe or Central Asia, but it is cultivated and used world wide today.
Presumably because of its residual smell, upper class ancient Egyptians turned up their noses at it, but the working class enjoyed its flavors. The ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have agreed with the Egyptians. Later, the earthy herb came into disfavor among the commoners as well in both Britain and Colonial America. Much to the shock of travelers of the time, upper class Italian women had no such inhibitions. That trend continues today. Although garlic is commonly eaten in nearly every country of the world, it is particularly favored among the peoples of South Europe or their descendants. For most people it is used as a seasoning, but some do eat it as an herb.
The smell that made ancient upper classes cringe was deemed both beneficial and repulsive among people of the time. A garlic necklace or a good garlic rubdown was supposed to ward off evil, colds, or increase physical strength. Modern medicine is taking another look at the herb in terms of its health benefits.
California produces most of the garlic grown commercially in the United States although some is grown in Texas and Louisiana.
Garlic has become big business in places like Gilroy, California, the garlic capital of the world. The air of Gilroy carries the aroma of garlic from the farms and processing sheds in the area. Machines have been invented to peel the garlic with blasts of air, relieving workers and cooks from constantly wearing the smell on their hands. The peeled garlics are sold to restaurants and bottled for distribution.
The word garlic derives from two Old English words that describe its appearance. Gar meant spear, and leac comes from leek. The plant is a leek relative with spear shaped leaves.
Garlic has been touted as a help for a healthy garden, by warding off invading insects, although there is some question as to its efficiency.