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Society Garlic: Not Really Garlic, But Great

Do you enjoy growing edible perennials? Maybe you love garlic chives for their flavor and pollinator-attracting prowess. Or maybe you’d like to add a splash of color to one of your herb gardens. If this description suits you, look no further than society garlic!

A society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) plant is a great addition to gardens managed by those with different plant tastes. Wildcrafters love using the leaves and flowers in salads and just as they would use wild garlic. Regenerative agriculture nuts love it because its hardy tuberous roots withstand almost any soil type. 

Society garlic does not attract pests or pathogens that spread disease. It thrives in bright sunlight and hot weather. And get this: it won’t give you bad breath when you eat it, like garlic will. Even though it loves summer, it’s winter hardy, meaning a long growing season is at hand. 

So what makes society garlic different from garlic bulbs? And what are the best methods of society garlic care? Read on and you’ll find that it’s simplicity itself. 

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Quick Care Guide

Society garlic
Society garlic’s leaves, flowers, stems, and even roots are edible. Source: nano.maus
Common Name(s)Society garlic, pink agapanthus, spring bulbs, sweet garlic
Scientific NameTulbaghia violacea
Days to Harvest14 to 21 days to sprout, then one to two years to harvest
LightFull sun to partial shade
Water1 inch per week
SoilLight, sandy, moderately fertile
FertilizerAdd compost once per year in spring
PestsAphids, whiteflies
DiseasesRoot rot

All About Society Garlic

Bee on society garlic
Bees and other pollinators are drawn to society garlic. Source: Monkeystyle3000

Society garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, is also known as pink agapanthus, spring bulbs, and sweet garlic. The common name society garlic comes from its ability to flavor a dish without the undesirable fallout of bad breath. This clump-forming herbaceous perennial is native to South Africa and has been naturalized in Tanzania and Mexico. Most people in America know of society garlic plants for their clumping, green straplike foliage which branch out below fragrant (sometimes pungent) lavender colored flowers. Flowers are tuberous and grow in clusters. The flower color ranges from white to pink to purple. Some varieties have multi-colored blooms of purple and white. 

Their tuberous roots need to be established before society garlic flowers can be separated and eaten. Interestingly, people who eat society garlic don’t come away with bad breath, even though the lavender-pink flowers smell as strong as skunk in the hot summer sun. Get it going, and you’ll be able to enjoy this clump-forming herbaceous perennial for at least three years. Flower stalks are topped by tubular flowers that reach up to 3 feet tall. Each lavender flower has six petals that cluster above narrow leaves. 

Society garlic isn’t garlic. It exists in the same family as garlic and onions (the Amaryllis family), and lies in the same genus as other tuberous South African plants which are very similar. Unlike regular garlic and onions, it grows quickly, with seeds that sprout within one to two weeks. However, it takes a year or two to bloom. It’s used in soups, salads, and dishes just as garlic chives would be used. All parts (including roots) lend spice to any culinary endeavor. 

Tubers have been used medicinally by people in Africa to treat many ailments. Zulu people in KwaZulu-Natal province have used the plant to season meat and potato dishes. They also plant society garlic around the edge of their homes to keep snakes out. And the same genus name comes from the governor of the Cape of Good Hope in Eastern South Africa in the 1700s (Rijk Tulbagh). 

Types of Society Garlic

Here are a few varieties of society garlic:

  • Silver lace society garlic: This variety has clumping white and green narrow leaves with lavender blooms that reach up to 3 feet and open in spring. They die away in summer. It’s a great companion plant for hyssop. 
  • Variegated society garlic: This species is similar to silver lace, but blooms into fall. Its lilac flowers reach up to two feet tall and are known for their deer resistance. 
  • Tricolor society garlic: Another variegated species, which is topped with white, pink, and purple flowers that open in early spring. With flowers, this plant is 2 feet tall.

Planting Society Garlic

Society garlic should be planted in spring in an area with full sun to partial shade. Make sure the place you choose is lightly fertile with sandy soil. This could be in the ground or in containers. Direct sow seeds or transplant full tubers at this time too. Because a society garlic plant is tuberous, it can be grown in a large enough pot (at least 8 inches deep).

Care

Pink agapanthus
This plant is also referred to as pink agapanthus. Source: cathexi

Once society garlic is established, there isn’t much you need to do. Let’s cover the foundations of caring for society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea). 

Sun and Temperature

As mentioned above, society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea) needs full sun to part shade, with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. Although it’s not hardy outside USDA zone 7 through 10, it can be grown in other hardiness zones as long as it is brought in in winter. 

Society garlic does not require any cold hours and handles high heat and cold well. Because it’s perennial it doesn’t need any protection from heat or cold when grown outdoors in zones 7-10, but you’re more than welcome to bring it in if it’s a container plant. Overall, it will do just fine in moderate frosts and light freezes. It may even survive the first frost of winter.

Water and Humidity

When you water your society garlic plants, water deeply and slowly. This plant has been known to survive extended droughts. Still, water regularly with a low and slow method. The best way to water is via drip irrigation. If a drip irrigation system is out of your budget in terms of money, space, or resources, regular watering with a hose will do just fine. 

Provide regular watering with soil drying in between. Allow the first one to three inches of soil to dry out. Because society garlic survives in extended droughts, it might do ok if you water every other day. Especially during these plants’ bloom time, cut back on watering. Water during flowering slows further blooms in your garden. 

When it rains often in your garden, do not water. The only disease you risk attracting to your society garlic plant is root rot, and too much water is the key ingredient for that issue. 

Soil

Plant your society garlic in sandy, slightly fertile, slightly acidic soil. Sand helps society garlic plants drain moisture away from the crown where root rot is possible. These plants grow in poor soil, as long as it’s well-draining. Consider this when preparing your containers. The suggested pH range for growing society garlic is between 6.8 and 7.5.

Fertilizing

These plants can survive and remain edible in extreme conditions, so it’s not necessary to apply any fertilizers. Still, work in a few inches of compost around the plant annually in spring. This way you can enjoy their lovely foliage, flowers, and organically rich leaves year-round. 

If you are gardening in rocky grasslands, rock gardens, or poor soil, some fertilizer might help boost foliage and flowers’ health. This goes for containers too. If you do add fertilizer, include a 5-10-10 slow-release granular type in the top few inches of the soil with your compost. 

Pruning

Other than harvesting edible leaves, no pruning is necessary beyond the removal of dead, damaged, or crushed leaves. This may occur after light freezes and moderate frosts. If your society garlic plants survive extended droughts, they may need a bit of a haircut afterward. 

Propagation

The easiest way to propagate society garlic is to divide clumps as they grow. Dig them up by the tuber and move them as needed. Transfer them to a container or another part of your rock garden after they flower in summer or late fall. Be careful where you plant them, though. In some areas, they are considered invasive. 

Although society garlic is a clumping plant type, it does propagate by seed as well. Break off the spent flowers which contain seeds and allow them to dry to harvest seed. Plant them in a seed starting mix, or direct seed them elsewhere when grown outdoors. Remember, the spot should have sandy soil and bright sunlight. 

Harvesting and Storing

Society garlic flowers
The flowers of society garlic can be quite showy. Source: Rockstar02

A society garlic plant tastes just like wild garlic, and it is ready as soon as early summer (spring sometimes) and well into the winter in warmer places. Follow this guide to learn best practices for harvesting and storing the leaves and flowers. 

Harvesting

If you’re wondering how to harvest your silver lace or variegated society garlic, you don’t need to wonder long. All parts are edible. Their growing season is from summer to fall. To harvest green or striped green leaves, cut them at the length you need them. When flowering, stalks and flowers can be harvested together. Take as much as you need without taking the whole plant. 

Storing

Use society garlic foliage in fresh or dried form. Again, all parts are edible (flowers too). Remember the common name society garlic comes from the fact that it doesn’t give you bad breath, but tastes just as good as garlic. Store harvests from your society garlic plants correctly and you’ll have foliage to incorporate into soups, salads, and stews just as you would garlic chives. 

Hang them to dry for a week or so (after washing) and you’ll be able to enjoy them even in the coldest winters. Their roots don’t need drying but they will keep in the refrigerator for one week, along with leaves. Flowers should be consumed immediately. Frozen tubers and leaves will keep in the freezer for up to one year. 

Troubleshooting

White society garlic flowers
White, pink, or lavender flowers are common. Source: Such A Groke

Society garlic doesn’t have many problems because it deters most pests and diseases. However, there are a couple of things to remember. 

Growing Problems

New plants may not thrive if they aren’t placed in an area with full sun. Plants of this plant type are deer resistant, though. They also don’t do well in high winds, even though they are suited to rocky grasslands. Remember to resist watering during the flowering stage. Watering during flowering prevents further flowering. 

In cool areas, foliage and blooms that are flowering will die back in your garden during winter. This isn’t a problem as much as it is an inevitability that you should be aware of. 

Pests

The only pests that these plants have to deal with are aphids and whiteflies, though neither will do much damage if you catch them in your garden early. Aphids and whiteflies both suckle on the sap of plants. Blast them with a stream of hose water to knock them off your plants for good.  If necessary, a little neem oil or insecticidal soap will also handle them.

Diseases

If you overwater, you can increase the likelihood of root rot in society garlic. Remember to let the soil dry out between watering your plant. Do not water (even in early summer) when there is a lot of rain. If your plant is damaged by root rot, stop watering for a time to see if things improve. Assuming that they don’t, gently remove the plant and trim off damaged roots, then transplant to another fungi-free location in well-draining soil.

Frequently Asked Questions

Society garlic plant
Young plants need a while to get established before harvesting. Source: spentpenny

Q: What is society garlic used for?

A: It is used to keep out pests, season dishes, and for medicinal needs in South Africa. 

Q: Is garlic society toxic?

A: No. While some findings suggest eating a ton of the tuber could be toxic, those studies are inconclusive. Just to be careful, limit your intake of the root to small quantities, and stick with the leaves.

Q: Why is it called society garlic?

A: It’s named after the governor in the Cape of Eastern South Africa in the 1700s. This is because although it’s garlicky, it doesn’t produce bad breath. High society loved the fresher breath element of this plant.

Q: Can you eat the leaves of society garlic?

A: Yes! All parts are edible.