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The History of Garlic

Garlic, as a horticultural crop, is among the oldest known crop. It dates as far back as 10,000 years ago (just after the last Ice Age). The first reference to the health benefits of garlic dates back 8,000 years ago and in ancient Chinese writings.

Egyptian and Indian cultures have made references to the use of garlic as well. There is historical evidence of its use by the Babylonians (4,000 years ago) and by the Chinese (10,000 years ago). Currently, garlic grows wild only in Central Asia, mainly in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Earlier in history, garlic grew wild over a much larger region. In fact, wild garlic may have occurred in an area from China to India to Egypt and to the Ukraine.

The region where garlic has grown in the wild is referred to as the center of origin. This is the geographic region where the garlic crop originated and the only place where it flourished in the wild. References have been made about wild garlic elsewhere in the world; however, this is the only region where true garlic routinely grows in the wild without the assistance of human propagation. There are other plants locally referred to as wild garlic, but these are invariably other species of the garlic genus Allium (onion), not garlic itself (Allium sativum). For example, Allium vineale (wild onion) is a wild relative of garlic that occurs in North America and is commonly called wild garlic.

The center of origin for a plant or animal species is also referred to as its center of diversity. It is here that the broadest range of genetic variation can be expected. For those who seek to find new genetic variation in garlic, Central Asia is where the collection of wild garlic occurs.

Once cultivated by the first garlic farmers outside of its center of origin, what types of garlic did early garlic aficionados grow? We have no recorded history or know anything about the early types of garlic grown. There is no reference to garlic cultivars or varieties made in the early writings discovered to date. No reference of it being hardneck or softneck, red or white, early or late, local or exotic.

Throughout history, some historians have speculated that softneck garlic was the predominant type cultivated. However, there is strong evidence of what would be interpreted as a hardneck type was found buried in Egyptian tombs. It was not until garlic was cultivated in southern Europe within the last 1000 years that the distinction between hardneck and softneck was categorized. Until more ancient writings about garlic are found or old, well-preserved samples are unearthed, we can only speculate about the early types of garlic grown.

Garlic growers and consumers have come through 8,000 years of history growing and eating their crops with little need to specify type or variety. It is only the last few hundred years where more detailed descriptions of varieties have been catalogued for any crop varieties.