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Garlic: the Stinking

(and Shielding) Rose

By Audrey Stallsmith

allium sativum

"My friends, we are going into a terrible danger, and we need arms of many kinds. . .put these around your neck," here he handed me a wreath of withered garlic blossoms. . .

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Shortly after having been delivered from bondage by Moses, the Israelites remembered nostalgically "the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick." Human nature being what it is, they had apparently forgotten that the Egyptians fed slaves garlic solely to increase their stamina!

As a result, the herb has always had a somewhat low-class reputation. Because it was also used to treat leprosy, it came to be associated with outcasts and the poor. Pariahs called "pil-garlics" had to skin their own cloves of the plant, which was widely known as poor man's treacle (or "heal-all").

Shakespeare's Hotspur delivered the ultimate insult when he said, "I would rather live/ With cheese and garlic in a windmill far/ Than feed on cates (delicacies) and have him talk to me/ In any summerhouse in Christendom." Menenius also speaks scornfully of "You that stood so much/ Upon. . .the breath of garlic-eaters!"

That sulphurous odor raised some questions about garlic's origins. According to Mohammedan tradition, it sprang up from the footprints of Satan! In Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom begs, "And most, dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath."

But, in the plant's defense, I must point out that the Egyptians also deified the plant and fed it to their soldiers to make them brave. So garlic stands for "courage" and "strength." Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon gar ("a spear") and lac ("a plant")--in reference to the blade-like foliage.

According to legend, wild sorcerer's garlic called moly prevented Ulysses from becoming a pig. The herb is also reputed to have protected many from the attentions of vampires and other members of the undead!

More seriously, because it is a natural antiseptic and antibiotic, garlic saved the lives of thousands before the age of modern medicine. It earned the nickname "Russian penicillin," perhaps because it originated in Siberia. It was also the principal ingredient in Four Thieves Vinegar, which supposedly allowed certain rogues to rob victims of the bubonic plague with impunity.

In addition, garlic thins the blood, expels worms, treats lung ailments, and combats viruses, bacteria, and yeast--besides lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Field workers have claimed that it staves off sunstroke as well.

According to superstition, garlic will prevent anyone from passing you in a race. Jockeys used to fasten it to their horses' bridles. Bald men were once called "peeled garlic." But they could remedy their bareness by rubbing the plant's crushed cloves on their scalps.

Sprays which include "the stinking rose" will kill insects and prevent fungus diseases on real roses. (One hates to think, however, what they may do to the flowers' scent!) The plant's effect on fungi is probably attributable to its high sulphur content.

That sulphur is, of course, to blame for the eater's halitosis, but it is also what makes garlic so good for you. It's also just good, period. I suspect that even the wealthy were occasionally guilty of garlic-breath!

Perhaps God presents us a challenge by giving some of the best herbs one unpleasant feature. So the nettle has its sting, the milk thistle its spines, and garlic its lingering odor. But we would be clods, indeed, to allow the bad to keep us from sampling the much greater good!

Allium sativum image is from Medical Botany by William Woodville.