Society Garlic

So-called society garlic is a popular flowering plant grown in many gardens. Despite the name it isn’t actually garlic. So what exactly is it and how did these particular plants come to get that name?

What Is Society Garlic?

“Society garlic” is the common name for the plant Tulbaghia violacea, the best known cultivar being the variegated Silver Lace. Like ordinary garlic this is a member of the lily (Alliaceae) family. However the family link is tenuous and society garlic it is not an allium. As such it can best be described as a “cousin” of true garlic and is actually more closely related to the narcissus flower.

Despite this botanical separation society garlic does possess a very garlicky smell. This aroma was almost certainly the reason for the “garlic” part of its name.

As well as smelling nice, society garlic makes a good ornamental plant for the garden. The leaves are long, thin and evergreen and it has attractive purple flowers. And as an added bonus it has a reputation in its native South Africa for helping to ward off snakes!

Why Society?

If society garlic’s aroma led to the “garlic” part of the plant’s name, where did “society” come from?

The generally accepted origined of the name is from a belief that society garlic could be eaten without producing the unfortunate side-effect of bad breath. As such it was considered a form of garlic that was acceptable in “polite society” and was often used to flavour soups or as a garnish.

Is it really edible? Despite the tradition of eating society garlic, some modern nutritionists advise against consumption. Although usually said to be edible it needs to be treated with care and has been reported to cause stomach problems for some people. I’d rather stick with the real thing.