(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 14, 2009.)
Society garlic sends up clusters of lavender, sweet-scented flowers from early summer through late autumn. Individual flowers are tubular at the base but spread out at the tips into inch-wide, star-shaped flowers. Foot-tall, grasslike foliage smells like garlic and prompts the gardener to wonder how it earned its common name. Legend has it that eating society garlic is less offensive on the breath than regular garlic, so it maybe that is why it is called society garlic.
Light to fertile, well-drained soil with adequate moisture gives the best performance. Although plants will grow in dry, sandy soil, they will not be as vigorous as those grown in better soil with adequate moisture. Flowering is best in full sun. I have some society garlic growing at a rental property where it never gets watered and seldom gets fertilized. It grows and blooms each summer, though it is not as large and floriferous as that in my yard that gets watered by the sprinkler system on a regular basis.
Very little maintenance is required to keep society garlic looking good. Occasionally, spent flowering stalks can be removed. Fertilize with slow-release fertilizer in spring. If foliage is damaged by cold temperature, cut it off at ground level. When warm weather returns, it will reappear.
Society garlic can be bought at most nurseries in gallon-size containers. If you have a friend who grows it, ask for a start when the clumps are divided. Plants spread slowly and are not aggressive, but they can be divided every two or three years. Seeds can be planted, but it takes two or three years before they reach blooming size.
Several different species of Tulbaghia exist, and several cultivars of T. violacea can be found. The most common cultivars are ‘Silver Lace' which has green leaves edged with white, and ‘Variegata' which has a white stripe down the center of each leaf. ‘Pearl' has white flowers and may be difficult to find. ‘Tricolor' sports blue-gray, white margined leaves and lilac-pink flowers. None, however, are as vigorous as the species. Tulbaghia fragrans is a species with wider, gray-green leaves and larger flowers. It does not bloom as frequently in my yard as the plain old society garlic.
Flowers and foliage are edible and are frequently tossed into salads for flavor and color. Flowers are attractive decorating deviled eggs, stuffed celery, and other foods. The garlicky leaves can be used in soups as a garlic substitute. Crushed leaves repel fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes (and perhaps humans, as well) when rubbed on the skin. Plants are said to repel snakes and moles in the garden. Some Dave's Garden readers report that it repels deer. This herb has been used to treat colds and coughs, pulmonary tuberculosis, and intestinal worms. Flowers are attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.
Society garlic is a dependable, long-lived perennial for the South. Moderate salt tolerance makes it a good choice for those who live near bodies of salt water. Get a few of these remarkable plants, plant them in a sunny place, and enjoy them many, many years.
At a Glance
Say: Tul-BAG-ee-uh vy-oh-LAY-see-uh
Family: Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllis Family)
Other names: Wild garlic
Origin: South Africa
Light: Full sun to part sun
Water Use Zone: Medium
Size: 18-24 inches tall, moderately spreading
Soil: Well-drained, moderate fertility
Salt tolerance: Moderate
Thanks to Philomel for the image of Tulbaghia 'Silver Lace' and to Soilsandup for the image of Tulbaghia fragrans.