Photo: Catherine Munro
Society garlic, Tulbaghia violacea syn. T. cepacea, is also sometimes called sweet garlic and wild garlic (a name it shares with Ramsons) in English, wildeknoffel in Afrikaans, isihaqa in Zulu and moelela in Sotho.
It is native to KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape (South Africa), but is also found growing wild in other South African provinces as well as Southern Tanzania, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho.
Society garlic is in the Alliaceae family, as are Garlic, Ramsons, onions, leeks and chives (plus lots of ornamentals). All the other plants listed are in the genus Allium, whereas society garlic is in Tulbaghia, but they are still fairly closely related. Who knows? The taxonomists might move it into Allium at some point.
The plant itself is a tender perennial with a corm-like bulb and long strap-like evergreen leaves which have a pronounced garlic smell when crushed or bruised. It reaches a height of 30-120cm (1-4 feet) and a spread of about 25cm (10 inches) depending on conditions.
Because it’s apparently a good snake repellent, Zulu gardeners often plant it around their homes. The crushed leaves also deter moles if placed within the run.
Cultivation and harvest
Tulbaghia violacea is easy to grow, preferring a well drained rich loam and a sunny position. In areas with cold Winters it will require protection from frost when the cold weather sets in. For plants in the open ground, this is usually achieved by cutting back to ground level and applying a layer of gravel or bark (not peat, which will attract slugs). Potted plants can be moved into a frost-free greenhouse or conservatory when necessary.
In general, society garlic is pest and disease free, apart from slugs and snails. If you have any problems with these pesky molluscs, it is best to grow society garlic in large tubs, as this deters them. In the worst case, add a copper band around the container, which will stop them in their tracks. Alternatively, if you definitely want to grow them in the ground (they make great edging plants), use a nematode slug and snail killer. This is fine for organic gardeners and very much more effective than slug pellets.
Society garlic is very pretty when in flower, and is ideal for parts of the garden that get well baked by the sun. It’s very tolerant of drought, even over long periods, although it does appreciate a good watering if you can manage it. It flowers best in a sunny position, but if you can’t provide that, a bit of dappled shade won’t cause any great problems.
You can harvest leaves and flowers as required. Divide big clumps in late Spring and replant. You can take part of the clump for use in the kitchen or for remedies if you wish.
Research has shown that an extract of Tulbaghia can be used to make an effective anti-fungal spray for the garden. Since most effective commercial anti-fungal sprays have been banned, and none of them (so far as I am aware) are organic, this is a great help to organic gardeners, though I don’t have a recipe so you will probably have to experiment a bit to get it right.
You can use the stems, leaves and flowers in salads or anywhere you would use green onions or chives, also in cooked dishes. The leaves have a mild peppery garlic flavour but have the advantage of not tainting the breath, which is why the names society garlic and sweet garlic were coined for it.
Zulus use leaves and flowers like spinach, and also as a seasoning with meat and potatoes. In Zimbabwe and South Africa the leaves are cooked to make a relish, sometimes with leaves from other plants. The leaves are also used as a substitute for shallots or as a flavouring for omelettes, soups, stews and pickles. The bulbs are peeled and added to stews or roasted as a vegetable.
Contra-indications and warnings
Do not take for long periods or to excess. Overuse of society garlic over a long period is likely to lead to gastrointestinal distress and prevent peristalsis. Eventually, contraction of the pupils and reduced reactions to stimuli may occur.
Research has discovered that this pretty plant is very active medicinally, almost rivalling garlic, and exceeding it in one or two areas.
The plant contains flavonols including kaempferol, marasmin, methiin (MCSO) and ethiin (ECSO) plus free sugars including glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, arabinose, rhamnose, xylose, galactose, glucopyranoside (MDG) and glycosides.
– It is antibacterial, particularly against Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis.
– It is anti-oxidant and antifungal.
– It has ACE inhibiting properties, reducing blood pressure and heart rate.
– It is anti-diabetic, increasing glucose uptake by more than 100%, the highest increase in glucose utilisation among 5 plants tested.
– It has anti-thrombotic effects which are higher even than that produced by regular garlic.
– It has androgenic properties and increases testosterone production by 30-72% in the presence of luteinizing hormone (LH or lutropin/lutrophin), which is produced by the pituitary gland. It has no effect without LH.
– Three separate studies have shown that it attacks and kills cancer cells by inducing apoptosis. In addition kaempferol has been shown to reduce cancer cell proliferation.
– Society garlic alleviates hypertension and lowers cholesterol levels, which helps to fight atherosclerosis. Kaempferol is also helpful in reducing atherosclerotic plaque formation. This effect is multiplied when kaempferol is combined with quercetin, found in leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes and berries.
– Kaempferol has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.
– Kaempferol is one of three flavonols (the other two are quercetin and myricetin) which have been found to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by 23 percent.
A decoction of the bulbs can be made by crushing and chopping about 15 grams (a half ounce). Put the herb into 500 ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) water in an enameled, glass or ceramic pan, bring to the boil, boil for 3-4 minutes, then cover and allow to stand for a further 2-3 minutes. Strain off and discard the herb before use.
A standard infusion of leaves can be made by adding 500 ml (2 US cups, 16 fl oz) boiling water to 15g (a half ounce) chopped leaves in a pot. Put the lid on, stand for at least 10 minutes, strain off and discard the leaves before use.
The dosage in either case is 1 cup a day, hot or cold, which may be split into 3 smaller doses.
The bulbs are traditionally used to destroy intestinal worms and to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, coughs, colds and flu, asthma, colic, flatulence (“gas“, “wind“), fever, restlessness, headache and stomach-ache. They’re also used as an aphrodisiac.
Bulbs which have been bruised are added to bath water to treat fever, rheumatism or paralysis.
The leaves are used for cancer of the oesophagus.
Crushed leaves are used as an inhalant for sinus headaches.
Rub the skin with crushed leaves as a flea, tick and mosquito repellent.
Where to get it
Tulbaghia violacea plants are easily found in plant catalogues. This is one you will almost certainly have to grow for yourself, as I’ve never seen it offered as a dried herb.
Society garlic is not used in aromatherapy.
As with all plants grown for medicinal use, it’s important to grow society garlic organically to avoid noxious chemicals becoming part of your remedy. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.