Garlic is part of the allium genus of plant, which has around 400 varieties including onions and leeks. These include many different forms of garlic. The most commonly cultivated and eaten form of garlic is “allium sativum”.
There are two sub-varieties of allium sativum: softneck garlic and hardneck garlic. Both hardneck and softneck varieties can be classified as gourmet.
Softneck Garlic Varieties
Softneck garlic is the most commonly found and its botanical name is simply allium sativum var. sativum.
Almost all supermarket garlic is a softneck variety. This is because softneck garlic is easier to grow and plant mechanically and also keeps for longer than hardneck. garlic. Softnecks are recognised by the white papery skin and an abundance of cloves, often forming several layers around the central core.
The flexible stalk also allows softneck garlic to be formed into garlic braids (plaits).
There are two main types of softneck garlic: silverskin and artichoke. Silverskin garlic is most common simply because it’s easier to grow and keeps longer. Artichoke garlic tends to have fewer but larger cloves and a milder flavour. The artichoke garlic bulb wrappers are coarser than those of silverskins and sometimes have purple blotches.
Hardneck Garlic Varieties
Hardneck garlic is technically known as the ophioscorodon variety of allium sativum. The name possibly originates from the Greek “ophis” meaning “snake”. Hardneck garlics have a “scape” – stalk – which coils from the top. On the top of this scape grow a number of bubils which are often mistakenly referred to as garlic flowers.
Hardneck garlics have fewer, larger cloves then the softnecks. They also have less of an outer bulb wrapper, sometimes none at all. This makes them more sensitive and reduces their shelf life.
There are three main types of hardneck garlic: rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe. Rocambole garlic usually has up to a dozen cloves of a tan or browny colour. Porcelain garlic has a satiny white wrapper and the fewest cloves in a bulb, perhaps as few as four very large cloves. Porcelain garlic is often mistaken for elephant garlic. Purple stripe garlic is highly distinctive because of its colouring, with bright purple markings.