Variety and Cultivar

Each garlic variety has subtle flavor differences, raw heat characteristics, harvest dates, bulb and leaf appearances, clove characteristics, and storage lengths. The most important characteristic of any garlic, beyond taste, is its storage quality. There are long, medium, and short term storage varieties, and you should grow some of each. Optimum storage conditions are required for the longest storage of any variety. Be aware that some long-storing garlic may become unusable while other bulbs of the same variety will store perfectly. Garlic is very sensitive to environmental conditions and is quite polymorphic. A striped garlic in my location might be almost white in yours. Winter and summer temperatures can strongly affect coloration and raw heat qualities. Moisture levels and stress in the field will also affect taste, storage and visual characteristics.

Allium sativum sativum 

Named for the artichoke-like layering of cloves, they are a favorite among commercial growers for their large size and generally no-fuss growing (curing is another matter, however). Softneck garlic does not typically produce a scape, so it can easily be used for braiding. You may have seen artichoke garlic at your grocer, with a white or buff- colored, coarse wrapper. The bulbs are round, yet irregularly shaped, with tightly-skinned, large exterior cloves and smaller interior cloves.   With about ten to 18 large or medium cloves per bulb, one pound of artichoke bulbs may produce 80 to 100 plants. The smallest, interior cloves can be eaten or sowed for spring garlic greens. Early-mid season harvest. Stores into early-mid winter when well-grown and properly cured. Artichokes can be sweet when eaten raw, hot or not hot at all, and are generally have a light-bodied garlic flavor.

Silverskin strains may also be found at the grocery store thanks to their long storage life, but are much less common than artichoke strains. Common to warm climate fields, this variety can also be grown in cooler, northern climates. Silverskin strains do not usually produce a scape, yet in colder winter climates, they sometimes do! This garlic has tight, smooth, white or buff-colored wrappers, often has pink clove skins, and is great for braiding.  Bulbs can have two to three layers of cloves, with a 12 to 20 small or medium-sized cloves per bulb. One pound of silverskin garlic produces 70 to 80 plants. The smallest, interior cloves can be eaten or sowed for spring garlic greens. The latest to be  harvested, silverskin strains are the also the longest storing, with individual bulbs holding out into May. Often very hot raw, you'll be thankful to have it long after all other garlic varieties are gone.

Allium sativum ophioscorodon 
weakly-bolting hardneck or bolting softneck

A variety that produces a hardneck scape, its 'beak' is wrinkled and the longest of all varieties. Strains produce large bulbils if scapes are allowed to mature, and some will produce large bulbils bursting from the leaves at the base of the plant! Asiatic garlic has white wrappers, often with purple striping. The bulbs have 7 to 11 cloves that are large and firm, forming a ring around the stalk. One pound produces 40 to 50 plants. They are early maturing and need to be harvested as the leaves begin to turn brown. Waiting until the leaves flop over can lead to open wrappers and shorter storage life. Stores until mid-late autumn. Often quite hot raw, Asiatic strains can be mild or richly-flavored when cooked. I find the strain 'Japanese' (or 'Sakura') to have the floral essence of honey when roasted.

Turban strains produce a scape also with a wrinkled 'beak'. This variety contains some of the most beautiful cultivars, with wrappers that are purple and mauve splotched or striped over buff or white. Six to eight large cloves form a ring around the center stalk. With few or no inner cloves, one pound produces 35 to 45 plants. Turban are the earliest to harvest and cure, so you'll have the first, highly anticipated garlic of the season. This variety is eager to sprout, therefore stores only through October. Mild to medium heat when eaten raw.

Creole is a partially-bolting garlic variety. Initially bred by Spaniards in the old world, they are known as warm-climate garlic, but can be grown with lower yields in colder regions. Creole offers strikingly beautiful, deep rose or burgundy red clove skins underneath white or buff bulb wrappers. The bulbs tend to be much smaller than most other varieties, each head producing 8 to 12 medium-sized cloves around a central stem. One pound may produce 60 to 70 plants. Later harvest. Small, well-grown bulbs may store into spring. Creole strains are richly-flavored, sweet, and your go to variety after the Rocambole and Purple Stripe strains have long been eaten.

Allium sativum ophioscorodon 

Highly regarded, but hard-to-find, hardneck garlic. Rocambole is preferred by chefs for its full-bodied flavor and easy peel cloves. Excellent dehydrated for great garlic powder. Broad, blue-green leafed plant with tight, double-looped scape. Thin bulb wrappers are often buff-colored with tinge of purple.  Clove skins are loose and tawny to brown. Six to nine large, sometimes double, cloves generally form a single layer around the stem, with occasional small inner cloves.  Bulbs produce 35 to 45 plants per pound. Best grown where there is a cold winter. Mid-season harvest, Rocambole stores into late autumn. Rocambole strains are sweet with some raw heat and have the richest, most savory garlic flavor. 

The strongest grower, with great tasting, large, easy to peel cloves.  A favorite among farmers, Porcelain garlic forms a loosely looping, sometimes hook-shaped scape. Bulb wrappers are tight, satiny white, sometimes blushed pink. Porcelain bulbs can be quite large, with four to six extra large, rose to brown skinned cloves per bulb. Expect 25 to 35 plants per pound. Mid season harvest, these strains will store through early-mid winter. Porcelain strains have juicy, hot cloves when eaten raw, classic garlic flavor and sweet, starchy cloves when roasted.

Purple Stripe
Vivid purple-striped wrappers and easy peel cloves are the hallmark of Purple Stripe strains. Scapes make 3/4 turns before straightening. Most cultivars have 8 to 12, crescent-shaped, mauve brown cloves per bulb. Can produce 60 to 70 plants per pound. This variety is harvested mid-season and can sometimes store through to March. In terms of pure flavor, the purple stripe strains are your go to garlic after you've run out of Rocambole. Richly flavored and sweet when cooked.

Marbled Purple Stripe
Similar to Purple Stripe, these have deep purple-blotched wrappers and easy peel cloves. Most cultivars have 6 to 8, magenta-purple skinned cloves per bulb. Can produce 35 to 45 plants per pound. Mid-season harvest, they will store into winter. Strains have rich, sweet flavor when cooked and can be powerfully hot when eaten raw.

A Brief Explanation of Botanical Nomenclature

Allium sativum is the genus and species wrapped up into one name. Allium is Latin for 'garlic,' but generally refers to all garlic and onions. Sativum simply means 'cultivated' in Latin, so that Allium sativum means 'culitvated garlic.' To shorten things, we sometimes write A. sativum

After A. sativum we find the different groups (some say subspecies or subgroups). The first group is called 'softneck', but is known botanically as sativum (A. sativum sativum). The second group is called 'hardneck,' or ophioscorodon (A. sativum ophioscorodon). Contained within these two groups there are generally agreed to be 10 varieties. 

Among this group of genetically distinct garlic, there are possibly a couple of hundred cultivated varieties, which we call 'cultivars,' strains, or 'cultigens.' The cultivar describes those varieties that have been selected and bred by people for certain characteristics over several years, and it is presented in quotation marks at the end of the botanical name. I prefer to use the word 'strain' when describing this characteristic.

Many of the named strains have been proven via DNA testing to be virtually identical, so that Allium sativum ophioscorodon var. Rocambole "German Red" may be genetically identical to A. sativum ophioscorodon var. Rocambole "Spanish Roja" or "Italian Purple." That said, A. sativum is also known to change visual or flavor characteristics in different climates or soils.