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Garlic: What’s Old is New

Susan Wittig Albert's Plant Mysteries
by Susan Wittig Albert
April 1, 2001

Garlic has been known as a healing herb as long as humans have recorded historical events. The plant has been found in caves inhabited ten millennia ago, and the first prescription for garlic was engraved on a clay tablet in 3000 B.C. Every ancient culture knew and loved garlic, but none more than the Egyptians, who used it to treat over 20 different ailments, and even employed it as money. In fact, the world’s first recorded work stoppage occurred when Egyptian overseers cut their slaves’ daily ration of garlic! In Greece, garlic was hung in birthing rooms to protect the baby from disease, while in central Europe, garlic braids were hung on doorposts to deter evil spirits. 
In the folk medicines of different cultures, garlic has been used to treat everything from colds to the plague, from snakebite to sexual lassitude. Because of its odor, however, the upper classes used it sparingly, so that it became associated with the peasantry, who consumed huge amounts of it. During World War I, however, its success in treating infected wounds demonstrated its antibacterial powers, validating the folk tradition. And in the 1920s, Swiss researchers identified the constituents that make garlic so potent. More recently, research has focused on the potential of garlic as an effective treatment of high blood pressure, diabetes, and atherosclerosis, and as a way to lower serum cholesterol and help prevent blood clots. 
Garlic is one of the easiest herbs to grow. Plant individual cloves in early spring (six weeks before your last frost date), 2" deep and 6" apart. In the deep South, you can also plant it in the fall. Garlic thrives in rich soil, deeply cultivated, and full sun. Cut back the flower stalks so the plant devotes itself to producing lovely, fat bulbs. Dig the bulbs in late summer and store where it’s cool and dark. You can also freeze them, by separating the cloves, removing the papery covering, and popping them into plastic bags. If you’re worried about evil spirits, you might want to braid the bulbs and hang them in your kitchen. 
Cooking with garlic is as easy as cooking with onions: just mince, chop, or mash in a garlic press. (If you’re sautéing it, do not burn--nothing tastes more bitter than burned garlic.) Try baking it, for use as a spread for garlic bread or a sauce (with the addition of a spoonful of vinegar) for grilled meat. Just slice the tip off a bulb of garlic, rub with olive oil, and bake in a 250-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. 
One interesting cooking tip has emerged from recent research: Peel the garlic, prepare it, and leave it open to the air for about 15 minutes before cooking it. This protects the healing constituents from being damaged by the heat of cooking. (Of course, you can always eat your garlic raw. If you do, try munching a few leaves of parsley or basil afterward, to alleviate "garlic breath.") 

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at 

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