Go to any nursery or garden center and ask for garlic seed. What you get are garlic cloves, just like the ones you get from the grocery store. Hold on a minute, you asked for seed and what you got were cloves, so you head over to racks of seed packages and look for garlic. You won’t find any. Check your favorite seed catalog and they won’t have garlic seed either.
If there is no such thing as garlic seed, where does garlic come from? How can we have so many different varieties of garlic if they don’t make seed?
Here is the true story about garlic and garlic seed.
Brief History of Garlic
To understand this story we have to start at the beginning. The history of garlic (Allium sativum) starts about 10,000 years ago. It grew wild in Central Asia where it produced flowers and made seed, just like any other allium. It was collected for use as a food condiment and for medicinal purposes. Nomadic tribes introduced garlic to the Mediterranean region, India and China. It has been in cultivation in China for 5,000 years. Today it is widely distributed around the globe, but it’s extinct in the wild.
Over thousands of years, humans selected the best garlic varieties. They were looking for stronger flavor, larger bulbs and hardiness to local climate. Along the way the plants lost the ability to produce seeds and todays varieties are mostly sterile.
I guess that since garlic has been reproduced vegetatively, it should be considered an heirloom?
What About Garlic Flowers?
If you grow softneck garlic you’ve probably never seen garlic flowers, but those who grow hardneck have. Hardneck garlic produce something called a flower scape. These are normally removed before they get too large so that the plant puts all of it’s energy into making bigger bulbs.
If the flower scape is left on the plant, it does form a flower bud (umbel capsule), but when the bud opens, instead of flowers you get the growth of bulblets (baby garlic), also called bulbils. The garlic grown today does not make flowers.
What is a Garlic Bulb?
The term “bulb”, when referring to garlic is confusing. You might think that a garlic clove would be the garlic bulb, but that is not how the term is used. A garlic bulb is the whole set of cloves at the base of a single garlic plant. What a confusing vegetable? Or is it a herb, or spice?
What is Garlic Seed?
When people refer to “seed garlic” they are talking about garlic cloves. A garlic bulb is broken apart and each clove is planted separately, to form a new bulb.
Checking the internet I also found several sites and videos that used the term “garlic seed” to refer to the bulbils but that is an incorrect use of the term.
Finding True Garlic Seed
The lack of true garlic seed makes it impossible to breed improved varieties of garlic, so in the 1980s and 1990s scientists started looking for varieties, mostly from Asia, that do set some seed. This effort has resulted in identifying some cultivars that can produce seed under certain conditions.
During this time, the methods used to force garlic to make real seed has also been improved and it is now known that many cultivars of garlic can be forced to make seed. With each generation, garlic grown from seed is more inclined to produce seed on its own, so breeders are starting to reverse thousands of years of line breeding.
Why Grow Garlic Seed?
Reproducing garlic asexually is a very slow way to develop new strains. Sexual reproduction produces a much wider range of mutations and develops new cultivars quicker.
Most garlic cultivars carry some degree of virus infection and nematodes are becoming a bigger problem. Both of these can be eliminated by using seeds, but not by using cloves.
Best Garlic for Producing Seed
Softneck garlic does not make flower spikes, so there is no hope with this group. Most hardscape types can be used, but the ones that are moist likely to produce seed include the Purple Stripe group and the Marbled Purple Stripe group, but many other cultivars will also work.
Growing True Garlic Seed
Hardneck garlic makes flower scapes that coil around. Instead of removing them, let them grow until they straighten out. The flower bud develops both flowers and bulbils during the early stage of growth, but if left alone the bulbils grow at the expense of the flowers. The trick to getting seed is to remove all the bulbils at an early age, so the flowers can develop, get pollinated and produce seed. This is best done by following these steps.
- Once the flower stem is straightened out, open the flower bud and remove all the bulbils you see, without damaging the flowers.
- In a week, repeat the process since new bulbils have probably started to form.
- Allow the plant to flower and set seed.
Some people will remove the whole scape before doing any of these steps. It can be placed in water and kept there until seeds develop. Keeping it on the plant is better for seed production, but cutting it off makes it easier for bulbil removal. Both methods can work. Click on this link for a detailed description of the process.
Growing Garlic From True Seed
Growing true garlic seed is straight forward. Germinate the seed by giving it a period of wet stratification and expect first generation seed to have low viability. It will take two years to develop a new bulb, and a couple more to build it up to full size.