Then the rest of the year, your doctor can play”.
(17th Century Proverb)
I know I say this a lot but Garlic (Allium sativum) really is one of my favourite herbs (although maybe technically a vegetable) especially in the kitchen. Garlic has become a culinary mainstay in most households but of equal importance are its benefits to health and its use in magic.
The Allium family includes Onions, Chives, Shallots and Leeks and is one of the most commonly used families of vegetables in our kitchens today with both Onions and Garlic being used in almost every dish we prepare, especially Garlic with its unmistakable, almost acrid and bitter fragrance used to great extent in Mediterranean and Asian cooking.
Growth and Cultivation
Do I really need to describe Garlic? Now I’m not discussing Wild Garlic here, but the common supermarket, kitchen variety…the one which most (if not all) of us are familiar with. Off- white bulbs divided into neat little cloves all compact and contained within a papery almost translucent skin. The cloves break off with relative ease which are used individually in the kitchen as is the whole bulb. The plant as a whole looks much like a giant form of grass, a thick green shoot with a few additional leaves hanging from it, the whole thing sprouting from beneath the soil which at full height can grow 2 feet, depending on variety.
Any time between September and mid-December is a great time to be planting Garlic as it needs a cold snap to get it going and growing couldn’t be easier. Buy a Garlic head from a garden centre (I have tried on several occasions to grow Garlic from bulbs bought in the supermarket with little success and research suggests this is likely because their Garlic may be treated with preservatives to inhibit further growth.) It’s important that the cloves are dropped into a hole and not pushed into the soil as this may damage the root plate. I use something like a trowel handle and dib a 2” hole into well prepared fertilised soil and lower each clove into the hole spaced about 9” apart. Cover them over; water them in, then you can pretty much leave Garlic to its own devices, just keep the area weed free and Garlic seems to repel the majority of garden pests so is pretty robust (for that reason Garlic makes an excellent companion plant!)
The Garlic is ready to lift and harvest when the green tops turn yellow and flop over….just like onions. The Garlic bulbs should be hung and left to dry before storing. I like to braid the tops and hang them (very French!) and just snip them off when I need them once they have dried and the skins gone papery.
The great thing about Garlic is it takes up very little space, so even if you don’t have a veg patch or allotment, Garlic will grow in pots or just dotted among other plants in the garden, just pop the cloves in and leave them alone and not only will you have home-grown Garlic, but neighboring plants will benefit from the bug repelling properties of the Garlic growing nearby. By the time the spring arrives and you are out getting ready for the growing season, the shoots will have emerged so there’s no chance of you accidentally digging them up!
The simplest way to get Garlic into your system is to eat it…couldn’t get easier than that. You can buy Garlic pills from health food stores and so on but frankly, why bother… it’s is the majority of foods we eat nowadays and if not can easily be added if appropriate. For this reason I won’t dwell on the culinary uses of Garlic, however I do want to highlight some of its health and medicinal benefits if only to encourage people to use it more for reasons other than flavour alone!
Now, where to start?!? You can always tell when someone has eaten a lot of Garlic right? It seems to ooze from their pores and high ingestion of Garlic will result in smelly sweat (and breathe) and they say to get the full benefits of Garlic you need to be eating enough so that you *can* smell it although I think little and often is probably OK too and the odorous properties of Garlic can be counterbalanced with green herbs like Parsley. Even a small amount is still detectable, it is in fact said that when Garlic is rubbed onto the soles of the feet it can still be smelt in the breath. So to little things that like to bite and sting even a tiny amount is detectable and actually makes the blood pretty unpalatable to fleas and mosquitoes. So it’s a good natural repellent and eliminates the need for horrid sprays etc.
It has also been long accepted in my family that Garlic keeps the colds away, and this is true owing in most part to Garlic’s antiseptic properties and high vitamin C and B content (vitamins needed for a good immune response). Garlic is one of the best natural antiseptics; it’s a bactericide and a fungicide and is great for treating athlete’s foot, thrush and so on as well as cleaning wounds. In fact Maud Grieve goes as far as saying Garlic has saved the lives of “thousands” owing to its antiseptic properties and its ability to prevent wounds festering and turning septic. For this reason Garlic was one of the principal ingredients in the original ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’ used in France to protect against Plague (but more on that in a jiff!)
Garlic is also a valuable blood purifier and conditioner helping to lower elevated blood pressure especially hypertension caused by high cholesterol and/or clogging of the arteries. Garlic reduces cholesterol, especially the more harmful HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and is therefore a worthy preventative measure for those at risk of heart disease and such like.
As with all natural ‘remedies’ there are contraindications including pregnancy and breast-feeding, low blood pressure and blood clotting disorders (garlic thins the blood and stops platelets, the bloods clotting agents, sticking. It should also be noted that Garlic boosts the efficacy of antinflammatory and analgesic drugs, maybe a good thing, maybe detrimental…so always consult a trained professional before introducing supplements.
Folklore and Magical Uses
The main use of Garlic (besides the kitchen) throughout the ages has been protection from all manner of evil nasties which go bump in the night. Heads of Garlic were placed at the Crossroads (dedicated to Hecate in ancient Greece) to deter and confuse evil spirits and keep them out of the area. It is the Vampires’ revoltion to Garlic which has made it more famous throughout the annals of folklore, but its use for general purpose protection is well documented.
People clearly experienced first-hand the healing properties of Garlic, back in the days when the cause of disease and sickness was attributed to spirits, it’s hardly surprising that what we know today to be the result of Garlic’s immune boosting factors, would have seemed to our ancestors to possess some supernatural, magical ability to combat the agents of darkness….the devils and imps which caused illness, nightmares, stole babies and attacked breeding women. A simple head of Garlic hung in the room or rubbed around the keyhole was sufficient to keep the nasties out (sounds like an antiseptic to me!!!). Now that’s not to say I don’t believe in the Magic of Garlic…of course I do…I still have a head of Garlic suspended in a small decorated pouch somewhere in the house but I think it is vital to retain some knowledge of the why, the how and the when from a contemporary perspective and not be a slave to superstition!
Culpepper attributes Garlic to the planet Mars which rules all things red and fiery including the blood but also war and defence, again quite apt for a plant which grows like a spear shooting from the soil….even the shape of Garlic is similar to the symbol for Mars. The name ‘Garlic’ derives from the old English garleac ‘spear leek’ and as Mars rules all weapons of war, Garlic may be rubbed onto ones knife blades (especially magical knives) to give them a bit more ooompf when commanding spirits etc.
There is also (and this is just personal conjecture) something Saturn-esque about Garlic, its dark underground, chthonic growth habit, associations with Hecate and the Crossroads and there is also a little bit of Islamic myth which states that Garlic sprung up from the footsteps of Satan as he left paradise. All points worthy of consideration when studying this herb. Because of the edible / useful part of the plant grows underground it is better planted during the waning moon (as many root crops are!) according to the ‘rules’ of lunar based horticulture.
As I mentioned earlier, Garlic was / is the principle ingredient in at least one of the ‘original’ Four Thieves Vinegars said to originate in Marseilles, France hence its other name of ‘Vinegar of Marseille’. A common belief is that Four Thieves Vinegar is so named because it is made with four herbs, one for each ‘Thief’ however the original Marseilles recipe included 10 different herbs. In fact the name of this ‘potion’ is said to derive from four thieves who created it in order to steal from and loot plague victims without catching the disease themselves…at least that’s the story I am familiar with and no doubt, history and hearsay have created many more. The recipe for four Thieves is now associated with Hoodoo and is possibly one of Hoodoo’s most popular potions, I am not a hoodoo practitioner but I do make my own ‘Four Thieves’ and yes, Garlic is the principle ingredient. I add it to floor, window and door washing water to help create a nice invisible barrier against malignant forces…another example of how the mundane chores of life become magical, and thus the magical becomes everyday and thus no longer mundane!
Now despite its stink, Garlic is actually said to be a bit of an aphrodisiac, hanging Garlic near the bedroom door is said to attract lovers, and for men, Garlic is supposed to arouse and excite (again this may have something to do with Garlic’s Martian attributes of fire, heat, blood and circulation) and hence it was banned from monasteries. Strangely however an old Norse charm involves scattering bits of ‘leek’ into ones ale, scribing the rune ‘Nauthiz’ in ones drinking horn to become immune to women’s seductive deception…perhaps then Garlic attracts men but repels women as weapons of war often do!
Garlic also has a history of use in malevolent magic, this time owing to its acrid, pungent smell…you often find anything that smells foul or unpleasant (although I personally like the smell of fresh Garlic) often has use in cursing, hexing, banishing and such like especially in sympathetic magic where pins may be stuck into the ‘head’ of Garlic…Ouch!
The dichotomy of Garlic is further fuelled by some of its folk names, how about ‘The Stinking Rose’, ‘Stinkweed’ and even ‘Nectar of The Gods’ clearly this herb divided opinion since it was first cultivated around 6000 years ago and it’s certainly one you either love or hate…either way the use of this humble, oft taken for granted mainstay in everyday hearth and kitchen witchery is second to none.
A Modern Herbal by Ms M Grieve
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing by Stephen Pollington
Breverton’s Complete Herbal by Terry Breverton
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper