Stinking roses

My nose gets a workout in June; roses and lavender, valerian and honeysuckle perfume the balmy breezes. Following the lead of hundreds of pollinators, Ivy Rose and I cruise around the garden, inhaling deeply. But not all the olfactory input is fragrant. Sometime around the summer solstice, my observant granddaughter announces, “The stinking roses are keeling over!” And ASAP, off we skip with trowels and buckets to harvest the garlic crop.

In this we are not alone. The Order of the Stinking Rose is a national club for devotees of those odorous buds. Indeed, garlic lovers from many lands have grown stinking roses in home gardens for some 5,000 years. Egyptian slaves (as they built the pyramids) and Old Testament Israelites (as they prepared to escape from Egypt) munched garlic — a strain akin to the ones old legends link with speed, strength and endurance (and one I would dearly love to sample!).

Around 1,000 B.C., garlic had a medicinal reputation in India and Babylonia. And 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates himself used it to prevent tumor growth (a property rediscovered by modern research). Louis Pasteur and World War I battlefield physicians praised garlic’s usefulness as an antibiotic in treating wounds. More effective than penicillin for destroying typhus microbes, it can demolish parasites both in the digestive system and on the skin.

For my part, I’ve been flu-free since the first year I raised (and consumed through the fall and winter) my own organically grown garlic. It remains the star of my team of immune-system toners. In winter, when my circulation gets sluggish, I crave it most; Ivy Rose, whose blood zaps like lightning through her young veins, never does.

Which brings me to garlic’s mysterious connection with the blood. In traditional Chinese medicine, it’s been used for millennia to treat blood pressure, heart and circulation ailments. Those blood-friendly properties are perhaps what gave rise to garlic’s noted role in Dracula lore. I’d wager that the garlic-hung rafters of medieval Europe had more to do with warding off heart disease, high blood pressure and clogged veins than vampire attacks. (Though come to think of it, garlic is highly destructive to blood-sucking mosquito larvae.)

How gratifying when a “health food” also delights the taste buds. Garlic’s a staple seasoning in my kitchen, often added to the pot at the last minute and cooked only briefly. The closer to raw it is (and thus, the stronger its aroma), the more potent is garlic’s antibacterial clout. No doubt it bequeaths different nutritional benefits when slowly simmered in soups, stews and chilis. I add small, whole bulbs (unpeeled and well-scrubbed) to soup stock, giving it a golden hue, and I rub toasted slices of French bread with juicy half-cloves to make bruschetta, topping the bread with delicious sauteed vegetables.

Growing garlic requires very little time and space, and pests leave the stinky plant alone. Twelve square feet will accommodate 100 garlic bulbs planted 3 inches apart in all directions. For my household, that’s a nine-month supply — from the summer solstice to the next spring equinox — plus enough to plant next year’s crop!

Garlic is the last crop I plant each year (around Thanksgiving). Fall planting establishes strong root systems, so when spring comes, the plants can focus their energy on producing leaves (it takes big leaves to produce those big bulbs). Cozy under snow or mulch, garlic can weather even occasional single-digit temperatures, and it’s one of the first guests to arrive at my garden parties.

One type of garlic that seems perfectly suited to my particular little eco-niche (at 2,500 feet in the Southern Appalachians) is Inchellium, a soft-necked variety discovered on the Colville Indian Reservation in Inchellium, Wash. (which has a climate similar to ours here, but with milder winters). Because soft-necked garlics have been cultivated longer than the hard-necked varieties, they grow in a wider range of climates. They also store better, because they have tighter skins. The Rodale Institute rated Inchellium the best-tasting garlic in its 1990 trials. Plump, rosy, soft-necked, palatable and adaptable, it’s left me so satisfied that I’ve never tried anything else!

And even though Ivy Rose isn’t yet ready to appreciate garlic’s flavor and aroma, she still manages to have a lot of fun with this feisty herb. She loves dusting the plumpest cloves, saved from our June harvest, with wood ash and planting them (pointy ends up) in a loamy, worm-rich raised bed. We barely cover the cloves with soil, add a layer of leaf mulch, and top with a sifting of ashes (root tonic). I wait three years before planting garlic in the same bed again.

In early spring — March in these hills — I nurture leaf growth with a dose of balanced organic fertilizer. In late April, I encourage root development with another sifting of ashes. And if rain hasn’t been plentiful, I pump up those leaves with morning waterings as frequently as possible. About three weeks before harvest, however, when the leaves begin to brown and droop, I stop watering to let the bulbs dry out.

Ivy Rose and I lift the garlic right around the summer solstice, when they have six or seven green leaves left. We sort the bulbs by size in buckets and let them cure for a few weeks, unwashed, in a cool, airy place (until it’s easy to shake and rub off the dirt). Then I hang them in that same cool, airy place until frost (when I move them, now completely dried, indoors). I store them in the coolest spot in my house and consume them until the next March, when they can’t seem to resist the urge to sprout.

I choose about 15 of the biggest bulbs to provide next year’s 100 plants. Every five years, I buy fresh stock — a pricey but long-term investment. As I’ve tried to teach my precious granddaughter, some things in life are so valuable, we should expect to dig a little deeper to pay for them.

Oh, and did I mention the entertainment value of stinking roses? On a dark, late-fall afternoon, when lavender and honeysuckle are but dim memories, Ivy Rose and her friend Shane lounge by the wood stove, braiding garlic. They are good at it – and fast; TV cannot compete with braiding garlic to claim their attention. By dinner time, they’ll have the whole crop ready for vampire patrol.

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