Garlic: A Brilliant Bulb

Photography by: Dawn Smith
Garlic: A Brilliant Bulb

German Porcelain. Rose du Lautrec. Rocambole. The first time I heard these names at my local farmers' market in Healdsburg, Calif., I assumed the man who had spoken them was referring to pottery, flowers, maybe an heirloom tomato. But when I looked in the direction he was pointing, I saw a woman with a wide-brimmed hat and a welcoming smile, her arms loaded with baskets of garlic. I soon learned that these are just three of the dozen or so varieties that Yael Bernier, affectionately known as The Garlic Lady, might offer on any given Saturday.

Bermier's stock-in-trade has a long and well-traveled history. From its roots in central Asia thousands of years ago, garlic has found its way into almost every culture and cuisine. A powerful source of flavor with a reputation for enhancing physical strength, the beloved bulb was cultivated around the globe by nomads and traders. "As it adapted to different soils and climates over time, different varieties evolved," says Bernier. "That's why a clove of Siberian tastes different from a Rose du Lautrec."

Healing properties
Garlic has been esteemed for more than just taste. "Garlic is one of my favorite herbs," says Ron Stram, M.D., founder and director of the Center for Integrative Health and Healing in Delmar, N.Y. "Because it affects many organ systems, it's been used for thousands of years as a preventative and a therapy." Only during the last couple of decades, however, have Western scientists begun to put garlic's purported health benefits to the test.

Of all the health claims associated with garlic, studies most strongly support its reputation as an enemy of the common cold. A randomized trial published in 2001 in Advances in Therapy found that participants taking a daily garlic supplement from November through February reported less than half the incidence of colds compared with those who skipped the garlic. Those who did get sick said their colds lasted just one and a half days, compared with five days for the placebo group.

Research related to heart-health benefits has yielded mixed results. Garlic does have natural blood-thinning properties, and preliminary results suggest it may help slow the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. However, evidence of garlic's ability to lower blood pressure has been weak. And in 2000, a federally sponsored analysis of dozens of well-designed studies found an association between garlic consumption and a modest reduction in cholesterol levels--but the effect has been shown to last only three months at most.

Other studies have linked high garlic consumption with a decreased risk of laryngeal, stomach, colorectal, and endometrial cancers, though more thorough trials are needed to support these findings.