Garlic Flowers

Friday, July 13, 2012

At first glance they look like garlic cloves, but they're actually about the size of a pea. They're "bulbils" or the little cloves that form in the flower pod if you don't snap the scape off of your garlic.

I've been doing a little work in our garlic patch to try to figure out how garlic works, and it has led me to leave a handful of scapes on some of our garlic to see what happens. This mostly stemmed from reading that garlic is almost sterile.

When we plant garlic, we take a bulb and divide up the cloves and individually plant them to make new bulbs. Essentially it's a clone of the parent plant and carries all of its goodness, but also all of its shortcomings. In our case one of the shortcomings is a pest called a bulb and stem nematode. Every year it hitches a ride on a clove into the new garlic patch and spreads. It doesn't make the garlic inedible, but the odd bulb is rotten when we harvest.

To the left is a flower just opening, and to the right is the flower after I've picked all the bulbils out.

When offspring comes from the parent without using seeds, it's called asexual reproduction. Potatoes, apple trees (cuttings), grape vines are all reproduced this way. You can continue a good trait by doing this, like the wonderfully sweet Concord grape, but the one negative is that it's still technically the same plant as it's parent, so there's little room for the genetic improvement that comes with a new generation. Bugs and disease learn to like it, and it can't learn to repel them.

So I'm going to see if our garlic is actually capable of producing true seed. An ability that's been nearly lost over the centuries.

If you have chives in your garden and let them flower, each flower is actually made up of hundreds of tiny flowers with each one eventually making a seed. Garlic on the other hand, in some cases, has less than a dozen flowers. They're being choked out by bulbils. I'm speculating, but bulbils don't seem too natural up in the flower. In some of our varieties, there is a second bulb full of them, just above the ground on the stem. Weird.

It's hard to find much information on garlic bulbils and true seed, so what I'm doing is a lot of guesswork. This study has been very helpful. It has made me realize that even if there are just a few seeds that are produced from my garlic, they'll still mostly be duds!

For now, we're beginning to pull up our garlic, but we're leaving the ones with the flowers to see what happens. Every day I'm checking to see if a flower is opening and if so, I'll pick out the bulbils to give the tiny flowers room. If I don't get seeds, that's ok. At least I got to spend some time in the garden eating bulbils. And I won't have to worry about vampires.


  1. Interesting, I've read that they're pretty much sterile as well. Make sure you post what happens. Have you come across walking onions, they flower and set seed much the same, then the clove type seeds in the seed head weight it down too much causing it to bend over where it hits the ground and grows again.

    1. I will let you know what happens. The flowers so far are ok, however it's really really dry so hopefully they don't just dry up.

      I haven't heard of walking onions before, but it sounds like what would happen to the scapes if I left the bulbils on some of the heavier ones! Very cool.

  2. I'm curious what happens, too. I usually throw the micro-cloves of garlic in the flower into stir-fries or anywhere I could use some garlic.

    1. We were away last week, so we're heading to the farm this afternoon to check on them. I'm not too optimistic based on how dry it has been....

  3. Wow that is so interesting. I have never noticed the bulbis before! To clarify can you eat the bulbis like garlic cloves? Thanks Nat