Garlic isn't just garlic, there are many different kinds of garlic and they're almost all different in size, color, shape, taste, number of cloves per bulb, pungency and storability. Most Americans aren't aware of the many kinds since they seldom see more than one kind in the local supermarket. There are said to be over 600 cultivated sub-varieties of garlic in the world, although most of them may be selections of only a handful of basic types that have been grown widely and developed their own characteristics over the centuries as local growing conditions changed.
Botanists classify all true garlics as members of the lily family and under the species Allium Sativum. There are two subspecies; Ophioscorodon , or hard-necked garlics (Ophios for short) and Sativum , or soft-necked garlics. The hard-necked garlics were the original garlics and the soft-necked ones were developed or cultivated over the centuries by growers from the original hard-necks through a process of selection.
The latest research (2003) shows that ten fairly distinct varietal groups of garlic have evolved; five very different hardneck varieties called Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, and Rocambole; three varieties of Weakly bolting hadnecks that often produce softnecks - Creole,Asiatic and Turban, plus two distinct softneck varietal groups; Artichoke and Silverskin. Our website has evolved to show this new structure
Botanists originally thought that there were only five groups of garlics. Then a 1995 study attempted to classify garlic into 17 isozyme types, but that didn't work out satisfactorily. Eventually Dr. Gail Volk of the USDA in Colorado and Dr. Joachim Keller of the Institute of Plant Biology in Gaterslaben, Germany, independently did DNA analyses of garlics and classified it correctly in 2003. The separate studies verified there were ten separate, distinct varieties of garlic. It's nice to finally get some real structure we can build around.
Apparently all of the hundreds of sub-varieties (separate cultivars) of garlic grown all over the world came from these ten basic groups or sub-varieties of hardnecks that evolved in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Their individual characteristics have been altered over time by careful (or accidental) selection and changing growing conditions, such as soil fertility, rainfall, temperature, altitude, length and severity of winter, etc. as they spread across Asia and Europe and the Asiatics and Turbans developed in the East, while the Creoles developed in Spain and southern France and Artichokes and Silverskins developed Italy and elsewhere in Europe by selection.
This picture of the structure of the garlic family is probably final but still work continues to define it more accurately using a larger number of cultivars and this may lead to the refining of the identification of clusters of sub-varieties but the basic picture is pretty much complete.
How Did All These Garlics Get Here?
A few of the kinds of garlic now in America came in with Polish, German and Italian immigrants over the centuries, but most of them came in all at once in 1989. The USDA had been asking the Soviets for permission to go to the Caucasus region to collect garlics but permission had always been refused because there were many missile bases in the area and this was where their spaceport was and is.
Finally, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1989, they suddenly invited the Americans in to collect the garlics. They were under continuous armed guard and were allowed to travel only at night so they wouldn't see anything of military importance. They went from village to village along the old Silk Road buying garlic from local markets and naming the cultivars after the town or village where they were purchased.
When they got back to the US, they realized they had no gardens ready in which to plant the garlic (The USDA plans things years in advance.) so they contracted out the growing to a few private growers on a share-the-garlic basis. After their crops were harvested and the USDA got their share, these growers began to trade with each other and to sell some to friends and other garlic growers and that is how they came to be available now when they were not available 25 or 30 years ago. There was no time for adequate phytosanitary precautions to be made so we don't really know what kinds of "hitchhikers" might have been brought in with them.
The above explanation also shows why these garlics are rare and expensive. Slowly more growers are beginning to grow these cultivars and as more of it is grown and the supply begins to catch up with the very great demand. Garlic lovers take one look at these delightful things and they feel an overwhelming urge to try them. In a few years, these gourmet garlics will be more widely grown and the price will eventually come down somewhat, but not as long as all growers are selling out in a short time.