Garlic, Allium sativum, is king among the oldest known horticultural crops. The Allium (Latin word for garlic) group are flowering plants known as the onion genus, and contain other related vegetables such as leeks, shallots, chives, onions and scallions. Alliums are native mainly to Asia. Garlic grows wild in Central Asia so this area is considered to be its origin. Garlic was in use as medicine at the beginning of recorded history and found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb which dates from around 1500 BC. A steady diet of garlic was relegated to the working class and athletes to ward off disease and maintain stamina. Physicians used garlic for everything from the plague to childbirth, and let’s not forget garlic’s use to ward off evil spirits, like vampires. Many of its medicinal uses are still being studied today, like prevention of cardiovascular disease and many cancers, including prostate, colon and breast.
The health benefits are from the active agents, allyl sulfide compounds, which seem to be tied to how garlic is prepared. These compounds are released when the cell wall of the garlic clove is broken by cutting, chopping or crushing. They require a few minutes to stabilize, so wait 15 minutes after preparing garlic before cooking to obtain all the cancer-fighting qualities. When crushed, garlic releases allicin (an antibiotic), which gives it a hot sensation and its pungent taste, along with phytoncide, an antifungal compound. These compounds are not digested and are released into the bloodstream, where they are carried to the lungs and skin where they are excreted. This is why people who have eaten a lot of garlic seem to be exuding garlic from their pores.
Garlic is easy to grow, hardy, not bothered by many pests or diseases and can be grown year-round in mild climates. Garlic is grown globally, but China is the largest producer with 23 billion pounds annually accounting for 77% of the world’s amount. In the US, where it ranks 6th in the world market, garlic is grown in every state except Alaska, but most of the production is centered in Gilroy, California.