Are you a hardneck or a softneck kinda garlic lover? Do you know? Most of us only know the supermarket variety, which is a softneck grown for shipping qualities rather than range of flavor. Hardneck and softneck are the broadest terms used for all varieties of garlic, and there are several hundred sub-species within those varieties. We’ll look at a few of the hardnecks here, and some taste notes you might consider in growing one variety over another.
A separate article will cover softneck garlic for Southern climates.
All garlics are Alliums, the species sativum, and originated in central Asia. Garlics fall into two broad categories, the hardnecks which usually grow a woody, hard neck or scape in the stem center are var. ophioscorodon. The softnecks which usually don’t grow a scape, are var. sativum. The climate in central Asia is damp and cold, which the hardnecks prefer. The softnecks were later developed from hardnecks and do better than hardnecks in warmer climates.
History Most of the early garlic in the US came with immigrants from Poland, Germany and Italy. In 1989 the Soviet Union finally invited the Americans into the Caucasus region to collect garlic varieties. They were only allowed to travel at night (in military areas) and as they went from village to village along the old Silk Road, they named the cultivars from the towns where they were purchased. Hence, we often have a variety known by more than one name.
Hardnecks According to many garlic lovers, hardnecks have the only ‘real’ garlic flavor although I am a garlic lover and I heartily disagree. Hardnecks are distinguished by the stiff “neck” or stalk in the center of the growing plant and they tend to have fewer but more uniform cloves around the stalk. There are three distinct groups of hardnecks: Rocambole,Purple StripePorcelain. Three additional groups have recently been added, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe and Asiatic. Unfortunately, I found very few variety references for them.
The most readily seen garlics are Rocambole and the term is often used as a generic name for all garlic. Rocamboles have thin, parchment-like skins and do not store as well as softnecks. However, they do peel easier. The term ‘serpent garlic’ comes from Rocamboles, which have curling top scapes that produce seeds called bubils. Bubils may be planted which in 2-3 years will mature into full-sized garlic bulbs.
Purple Striped garlic is aptly named for the stripes which all have to some degree. The differences in Purple Stripes in taste are from mild to pungent, and in time to maturity. I have ‘Chesnok’ growing in my garden, mainly for roasting whole.
Porcelain garlics have a thick, tough skin making them excellent for storing. The heads are plump with just a few large, fat cloves. Only the Silverskins (a softneck) store longer. Porcelains are all full-flavored, generally running to musky hot and pungent in taste. They are usually more expensive to buy and have the fewest cloves per bulb… sometimes as few as 4 although 6-8 is more typical.
I no longer wonder where fire breathing dragons come from in Chinese folklore - they're ordinary people who have eaten too much of the Asiatic garlics. Asiatic garlics were originally classified as a separate group that was part of the Artichoke garlics (Softnecks) but recent DNA research done independently by Dr. Gayle Volk of the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado and Dr. Joachim Keller of the Institute for Plant Research in Gaterslaben, Germany, shows them to be weak-bolting hardnecks.
Here is a list of a few hardneck garlic varieties, with some notes about them and taste descriptions:
Rocambole: ‘Baba Franchuk’s’, endangered and hard to find, excellent flavor with punch ‘Carpathian (Polish)’, very strong, hot and spicy and sticks around for a long time ‘Colorado Black’, smooth, medium bite ‘Dan’s Italian’, good strong bite ‘German Red’, rich, strong flavor, hot and spicy, lingering flavor, 8-9 cloves/bulb ‘Killarney Red’, perhaps originated from ‘Spanish Roja’ or ‘German Red’ but said to grow better than either of those. Rich flavor, 8-9 cloves/bulb, heritage, endangered and hard to find ‘Korean Purple’, hearty delicious flavor, heritage, endangered and hard to find ‘Purple Italian’, rare, rich and strong and not overly hot and spicy, 8-9 easy to peel cloves/bulb ‘Purple Max’, strong rough flavor, heritage, endangered and hard to find ‘Puslinch’, excellent lively flavor, heritage, endangered and hard to find ‘Spanish Roja’, heirloom, huge bulbs, strong hot and spicy, full flavor, 8-9 cloves/bulb
Purple Stripe: ‘Bogatyr’ stores well, 5-7 cloves/bulb ‘Brown Tempest’, a marbled purple stripe, heritage variety, 5-9 cloves/bulb ‘Chesnok’ or ‘Chesnok Red’ (aka Shvelisi) roasts well, rich hot medium flavor, lingering taste, 4-10 cloves/bulb ‘Chrysalis Purple’, large, dependable, hardy, easy to peel, 8-12 cloves/bulb ‘Duganskii’, heritage variety ‘Khabar’, smooth mellow taste ‘Metechi’, very strong, heritage variety ‘Persian Star’ (aka Samarkand), rich elegant medium flavor, heritage ‘Purple Glazer’, tall with large bulbs, sweet hot and warm richness like ‘Red Toch’ and ‘Burgundy’, heritage, hard to find, 9-12 cloves/bulb, stores 5 months ‘Red Rezan’, hot, mid harvest, needs very cold winters, 9-12 cloves/bulb, stores 5 months ‘Siberian’, mild delightful flavor, not overpowering, 5-7 giant cloves/bulb, heritage, thrives in cold climates, stores 5 months ‘Skuri #2’, very strong ‘Starbright’ has a somewhat nutty flavor
Porcelain: ‘Dan’s Russian’, full flavor that starts strong and then fades ‘Fish Lake 3’, heritage, good taste and strength, endangered and hard to find ‘Georgian Crystal’ is very mild with fat bulbs, 4-6 large cloves/bulb, stores 6 months ‘Georgian Fire’, rich, robust, strong and lingering flavor, endangered and hard to find, 5-9 cloves/bulb, stores 6-7 months, Hottest ‘German Stiffneck’ is often called ‘German Extra-Hardy’, ‘German White’ and ‘Northern White’, strong and robust flavor, stores 10 months or longer ‘Leningrad’, hot and strong, endangered and hard to find ‘Music’, large bulbs, hot, sweet and pungent, 4-7 cloves/bulb, stores 6 months ‘Northern Québec’, endangered and hard to find ‘Polish Hardneck’, sometimes called ‘Polish Carpathian’, rich flavor, hot searing pungency that sticks around for a long time. Good hot strong long storing garlic. ‘Romanian Red’ is fiery hot and has a lingering tanginess ‘Rosewood’, very strong and robust and sticks around for a long time and can nearly be overpowering at times ‘Susan Delafield’, very HOT, tolerates wet soils, endangered and hard to find ‘Ukrainian Mavniv’, good strong flavor ‘Wild Buff’, very strong and robust and sticks around for a long time and can nearly be overpowering at times ‘Yugoslavian Porcelain’, strong with good taste, 2-5 cloves/bulb ‘Zemo’, hot, strong and spicy robust flavor, grows well, stores 5 months Asiatic Garlics ‘Asian Rose’ - A strong garlic, Harvests VERY early in season - stores about 5-6 months. ‘Asian Tempest’ - A strong garlic. Harvests VERY early in season - stores about 5-6 months. ‘Japanese’ – Early harvest, 4-8 cloves/bulb, stores 5 months, Hot ‘Korean Red’ - rich yet mellow. Harvests VERY early in season - stores about 5-6 months. ‘Pyong Vang’, Mid-harvest, 7-10 cloves/bulb, stores 6 months, hottest ‘Russian Redstreak’, A rare early season mild garlic; delightfully mild and full flavored with only a little heat, productive, stores very well, presents a nice appearance with an excellent raw flavor. ‘Gregory's China Rose’, Harvests early in season - stores around 6 months. - Excellent for growing in Warm Winter Areas. Rich earthy flavor.
Garlic for planting should be pre-ordered now (or before late summer) to assure availability. By mid-to--late summer when I usually start to think of planting garlic, very few varieties are still available.
I have a 'growing my own food' obsession that comes from my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. I am also a "teacher", a writer, a builder… and a craftsperson and... and… and many other things, LOL. In fact, I guess I am a generalist, and a Seeker.
I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains on a hillside with a creek in front, and drive a 15 year old truck I lovingly call “My Farmer’s Ferrari.”