Chapter excerpt from The Lazy Gardener’s Guide to Easy Edibles: 25+ Edible Plants Anyone Can Grow
Society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) is a perennial herb or landscape plant that is grown for its fragrant flowers, edible leaves, and edible roots. It is native to Southern Africa and is naturalized in various parts of East Africa and Central America. A part of the onion family, society garlic gets its name from the belief that, while the plant smells like garlic, it supposedly does not cause halitosis the way true garlic does.
Society garlic is an attractive landscape plant with green leaves growing to about 18” in height during the growing season and flower stalks that bloom from summer to fall. The flowers are attractive and can be pink, purple, or blue; they’re also loved by insects. They have a sweet smell and look distinctly different from flowers of other closely related plants, such as onions and true garlic.
Society garlic is easy to grow, especially in climates similar to the southern half of the United States. In more northern climates, it has to be protected from severe winter cold. It is often grown as a container plant in these regions and brought to a protected area during the winter. It will go dormant after a frost anywhere it’s grown, but as long as the ground doesn’t freeze above the first inch or two, the leaves will grow back from the storage roots in the spring. It is very easy to grow and does well in the landscape or herb garden. Some cultivars of society garlic, such as ‘Tricolor,’ have colorful leaves.
Society garlic may help repel some pests from other garden plants. The flowers have a sweet scent at night that attracts moths, which in turn help in the plant’s pollination. Society garlic has received the British Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
How to Plant
Plant society garlic bulbs (storage roots) in full sun after the danger of frost has passed. Plant in well-drained soil with organic matter. The plant benefits from a layer of mulch around it and will spread by bulb division over time.
Once established, society garlic is tolerant of dry spells. During the most extreme dry spells, it will go dormant and sprout again after a rain. In the right conditions, the plant will grow quickly, spreading by bulb division into a large clump. It is generally not considered invasive, however, because it forms a clump of plants and doesn’t grow far outside the area where it was planted.
If the clumps grow too large, the plant can be easily divided while it’s dormant. Society garlic is so easy that it can also be divided while it’s still growing, though this may cause the loss of some bulbs. Cut off the leaves at planting if the plant is divided during the growing season.
There are no pest or diseases that seriously harm society garlic, and it does not need any supplemental fertilizer.
In more northern latitudes where the ground freezes, society garlic can be grown in a container in the ground in the landscape and carried to a protected location before a hard freeze. It can also be grown as an annual in cold winter areas. In the United States, it generally freezes out in areas north of USDA zone 7.
Society garlic is an easy plant to grow in containers virtually anywhere. Grow society garlic in well-drained soil in a container with good drainage. For maximum growth, keep the soil in the container moist. If given at least six hours of sunlight per day, society garlic can be grown indoors. It does, however, have a strong garlic smell, so the potential locations for growing it indoors may be limited.
Society garlic is easy to propagate by division in winter in warmer areas or in spring in cooler areas. Simply dig up the plant and divide the bulbs into either smaller clumps or individual bulbs. The propagated plants grow into their own clumps of society garlic in a short time. The plant can even be divided during the growing season, though that will result in the death of at least some of the bulbs.
Society garlic can also be propagated by seeds collected after the flowers dry out on the plants. Seed propagation is a bit more challenging, however, than bulb propagation. The easiest way to propagate society garlic by seed is just to plant the seed in the ground. In colder areas, the seeds should be planted the following spring. Keep the seeds moist and cover them with no more than 1/4” of fine soil.
Society garlic leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season and even in winter in warmer areas. Clip the leaves with scissors, taking however much will be needed for an upcoming meal and or for drying. The flowers can be harvested once they bloom; both the flowers and stalk are edible. The roots can be harvested year-round by digging, usually on the outer edges of the society garlic clump. The roots will look like small bulbs.
Enjoying the Harvest
Society garlic leaves can be added to recipes and used like garlic chives, though they tend to have a slightly stronger garlic flavor. The leaves can be easily air-dried and used to season food. The flowers have a sweet, slightly onion-like flavor and can be used to add colorful seasoning to soups and other dishes. The bulbs have a flavor similar to garlic and can be used for flavoring dishes just like garlic would be used. The bulbous roots can be used fresh year-round.