Elephant Garlic Revisited

Elephant garlic, Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum is a relative of garlic, onion and leek that lives in many local Ozark gardens and survives long after cultivated areas are abandoned. It is named for its very large, often apple-sized bulbs. Individual cloves can be the size of regular garlic bulbs.

It occurs in stands that are currently marked by celestial globes atop stalks 3-feet high or even taller. The flowering stem can be dried upright in a tall vase. These will remain rigid and look beautiful, especially when mixed with peacock tail feathers and poppy pods.

The bulbs should be harvested for storage when about half of the leaves have turned yellow. The bulbs, also known as heads, should be cleaned of excess soil with gloved hands. To cure, put them on a screen with plenty of space between each bulb, out of direct sunlight. The best and biggest bulbs should be set apart for replanting in October.

Small axillary bulbs that are not enclosed in the papery skin of the head will produce new plants. They should be replanted as soon as the garlic is harvested. Usually some of these remain behind as the bulbs are dug. Each little bulb will produce a new plant, forming a single, cloveless round. Rounds will produce heads with cloves in the second year if left to grow.

To develop big bulbs, plant elephant garlic cloves 6- to 8-inches apart and about 4- to 6-inches deep in full sun. The plants will perform best in loose, friable soil that is amended with soft rock phosphate before planting. In early spring, when the little green leaves start to actively grow, use a nitrogen-rich fertilizer such as blood meal, feather meal or fish emulsion. When the blooming stem emerges, cut off this scape to eat, so that the energy of the plant is redirected to the formation of a large bulb. After trimming the scapes, it is recommended that potash be applied by mulching the crop with comfrey leaves or amending the soil with kelp meal. I add potash to the soil at planting time with the use of greensand and kelp meal.

Elephant garlic has its own flavor. It is milder and contains less sulfur than garlic. It has a slight bitterness to my palate. People who grow and use this variety of allium slice the cloves on to sandwiches and salad. Many love to roast the whole heads and pop the flesh out of the skins. To roast bulbs of garlic, cut the very top off, leaving the outer skin in place. Place them in a garlic roasting dish or individually on a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with olive oil and add a spring of rosemary, thyme or a bay leaf. Cover the dish or seal the foil. Roast the garlic for 35 to 45 minutes at 300° F, until the bulb, when pressed, is soft and yielding. Alternatively, roast whole cloves in a covered baking dish in the same manner.

Elephant garlic has a rich history according to Colin Simpson, Oxted, Surrey, England. I found his garlic article at http://archive.li/wnYH9. It is believed that this allium is an Eastern Mediterranean native, where it is known as the “Great Headed Garlic”. It was grown in the garden of John Tradescant the Younger, a famous botanist and gardener, in 17th century England.

According to Simpson, American nurseryman Jim Nicholls rediscovered elephant garlic in 1941 growing in an old settlement in the Willamette Valley, Scio, Oregon. Immigrants from the eastern Balkans had settled there. The plant was known locally as “Scio’s Giant Garlic”. For twelve years Nicholls planted the largest cloves and selected the best, most disease-resistant plants. At that time he released the bulbs on the market as “Elephant Garlic”. Call it what you will, this allium is fun to show off and beautiful to grow. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!