An herb is a plant whose leaves, seeds, or flowers are used for flavoring food or in medicine. Other uses of herbs include cosmetics, dyes, and perfumes. The name derives from the Latin herba, meaning "green crops."
Garlic (Allium sativum) is from the Alliaceae family like its close relatives chives, leek, and onions. The edible herb most commonly associated with the name is the bulb of garlic cloves that is found underground, below the leafy, scallion-like growth. Hardneck and softneck are the two basic varieties. One key difference is that hardneck sends up a flower stalk, called a scape, which is another edible portion of the plant. The scape is less well known in the U.S., possibly because most grown for commercial use is softneck.
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History. Garlic has a long history of popularity and was used in Ancient Egypt, as evidenced by its discovery in King Tut's tomb. It has been used for culinary and medical purposes throughout history, and also has a reputation as a repellent of irritants from mosquitoes to vampires. Gilroy, California celebrates itself as the "Garlic Capital of the World," and, indeed, about 90% of the that grown in the U.S. is grown in California.
Description. A garlic bulb, composed of 4-60 cloves, can be 1.5 to 3 inches in diameter (4 to 7.5 cm) and grow to a height of 10 inches to 5 feet (10 cm to 1.5 m). The flowers are white with a rose or green cast. The bulbs themselves are creamy white and may have a purplish hue, as may the paper-like covering that surrounds the bulb and encloses each clove.
Gardening. Garlic is a perennial usually grown as an annual and best when planted in the fall for harvest the following year. It prefers well-drained soil and must be planted pointed-side-up. This herb is used in companion planting, also known as co-planting, to keep pests away from other plants, but legumes, peas, and potatoes do not do well in its presence.
Food and other uses. There are certain dishes that are unimaginable without garlic: the sauce from France called aioli, the Italian anchovy dip called bagna cauda, the Middle Eastern spread hummus, Greek Tzatziki sauce, and, of course, garlic bread, to name a few. It is also used in many Italian sauces, in Southeast Asian stir-fries, and roasted for use as a spread. There are jellies and jams, and even ice cream. For a milder flavor, choose Elephant garlic, which — while large in size — is "reduced" in taste. This herb is also a popular craft item: it is braided and made into wreaths.
Preservation. Garlic keepers, covered ceramic pots with holes for circulation, provide the kind of cool, dark climate in which the bulbs keep best. Green shoots on stored garlic do not mean it can no longer be used, but the flavor will be milder. Neither freezing nor drying gives satisfactory results, but pickling, or storing peeled cloves in wine or vinegar in the refrigerator, will preserve the plant for up to four months. Scapes can be kept in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Do not, on your own, store garlic in oil, even under refrigeration as is sometimes recommended, because cases of botulism have resulted. Commercial preparations in oil, by law, have been specially treated to prevent this possibility.