While most may never venture to view the giants of the vast Serengeti, one needs to go no further than their own garden safari to see Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum.
Elephant garlic, neither related to the African elephant nor a true garlic, is sure to satisfy your gardening ventures.
Also, while it may not sport the more familiar tusks of its namesake, its very impressive ivory cloves are trophies worthy of planting.
Elephant garlic is sometimes known as “Great Headed Garlic” and does indeed have huge-sized heads as large as or larger than an apple that may weigh more than half a pound. Individual cloves are as large as an entire bulb of true garlic (A sativum).
It also has its own unique flavor. More closely related to a leek than to regular garlic, the flavor is much milder with slightly bitter overtones. Lacking true garlic’s sulfurous content, Elephant garlic is mild enough to slice and consume raw.
Elephant garlic has a rich history, according to Colin Simpson, Oxted, Surrey, England. It’s believed to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean where the name “Great Headed Garlic” came from.
A famous botanist and gardener, John Tradescant the Younger, also included Elephant garlic in his 17th century English garden.
According to Simpson, it was American nurseryman Jim Nicholls, who rediscovered Elephant garlic growing in an old Balkan settlement in the Willamette Valley in Scio, Oregon in 1941. After propagating the most select disease-resistant cloves of what had been known as “Scio’s garlic” for 12 years, Nicholls released the bulbs on the market and renamed them “Elephant garlic”.
Not only is this hardy bulbing herb impressively large, but like its namesake it’s a wonder to see in its garden habitat. Recognize it by its wide, strappy, bluish-green leaves. Its large bulb consists of five to six substantially sized cloves surrounded by bulblets. Plants grow to 3’ or more in height.
Early in summer, cylindrical stalks are adorned with a single spathe resembling a swan’s head. These pointy pods explode to reveal densely packed, mauve-tinted flowers that attract pollinating insects and can be made into unique arrangements when dried. They’re a dramatic backdrop for all who view them.
Elephant garlic’s mild flavor falls between garlic and leeks (for strong garlic flavor use true garlic). Use this magnificent herb raw, boiled, in soups and stews, baked, roasted, or pickled– not only for taste, but also for vitamins A, C and E.
Plant Elephant garlic in the fall for the highest yield, as it needs cold weather to divide properly. Plant cloves point up like true garlic, but 4” to 6” deep and spaced 10” to 12” apart (or follow your seed company’s directions for the Pacific Northwest) in well-drained, composted soil with some soft-rock phosphate (a product that includes calcium and phosphorus). Irrigate adequately until rain comes. When green leaves resume growing in spring, fertilize with nitrogen (fish meal or emulsion or blood meal).
Harvest when the first few bottom leaves are yellow. Stop watering before harvesting. Do not pull up the bulbs by the stalk. Instead, carefully unearth the heads – after loosening them – then gently pull with a digging fork or spade. Remove the excess soil and cure the heads in a well-ventilated shaded area for about two weeks. Then enjoy your harvest.
Remember to save your biggest and best bulbs for replanting next autumn.
So, venture out on a garden safari and you just might spot an elephant, or maybe even more.
Axillary bulblets surrounding main head can either be consumed or planted out. Leave in the ground for a second year to get sizable heads.
Flower stalks can be allowed to bloom but cutting immature scapes will produce larger garlic heads. Young scapes can also be consumed.
References for this article:
Oregon State University Extension Service, September, 2021
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Organic Gardener Magazine, Australia. Sept 2018.
Arkansas State Parks
Sources for Elephant garlic seed:
Irish Eyes and a Hint of Garlic
(A detailed growing guide is available on this site.)
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Roasted Elephant Garlic Spread
1 to 2 heads Elephant garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (regular or lemon)
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
8 ounces reduced fat cream cheese or equivalent block of firm tofu
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Toss garlic cloves with oil, sea salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary. Place all in a large piece of heavy aluminum foil, then seal the packet closed. Place on a medium low heat grill and cook about 15-20 minutes until brown and soft. If using an oven, preheat to 400° and roast for about 35-40 minutes.
Let garlic cool to room temperature then put in a food processor with cream cheese or tofu and olive oil. Pulse on and off a minute for chunky texture or longer for creamy.
Serve as a spread for snacks, sandwiches, or wraps.