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What Happened to my Garlic?

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Photo from Cornell University Photo from Cornell University

The sad discovery of "waxy breakdown."

A funny thing happened in my kitchen when I went to whip up a batch of fresh salsa. Upon peeling my garlic, grown by my very own hands in my garden for the first time this year, I found—garlic gummy bears. Or something like that. Clove after clove was orange, jellied, and not at all looking like the pungent, firm, white garlic I’ve come to love.

What in the world did I do to my garlic?

Rest assured, if you have also torn into a garlic bulb only to find jellied cloves, this is not actually a gardener error. What’s happened is a not-totally-understood process called “garlic waxy breakdown,” and is a “physiologic disorder” thought to be caused by high temperatures near harvest time, and/or might be due to improper storage with inadequate ventilation and low oxygen.

My garlic was stored appropriately, but I immediately thought back to the intensely hot days in July when I harvested my garlic. Who knew there was a drawback to heat? I love hot weather, but garlic doesn’t and I love garlic, too.

Despite a lot of time searching on the Internet, I could find no definitive answer on whether garlic in this condition is still edible. I came across two relatively scholarly articles that suggest waxy breakdown renders the garlic unfit for consumption, along with a few statements from amateur gardeners that indicated they went ahead and used the garlic in various recipes with no ill effects.

Personally, I’m not a risk-taker when it comes to food and, as much as it pains me to do so, the garlic affected is going into the compost pile.

The first signs of waxy breakdown are light yellow spots on the clove of the garlic—if you find these (on either store-bought garlic or garlic you’ve grown yourself) you should be able to cut the spots out and use the rest of the clove. In its more advanced stage, waxy breakdown shrinks the clove as it (desiccates? jellifies?) so if you feel your garlic heads and notice the skin seems loose with no firm clove beneath, check the cloves right away to see if there are any that can be salvaged.

To prevent this, look closely at your planting area. While garlic, like most vegetables and fruits, needs sun, it doesn’t need hot sun in the early summer. Choose a planting spot that might offer shade from intense heat, or consider some type of portable shade you can erect if we get more of those high heat days early in the summer.

Plant early (that would be two months ago, now) and harvest as soon as you’re able; the rule of thumb is to pick garlic when the bottom two leaves have turned brown. Garlic needs to cure after it’s picked, but if the weather is hot, leave it out to cure in a shadier spot.

Garlic is generally one of those plants that are easy to grow and harvest, but your gardening schedule may need to change slightly if we continue to have hotter weather earlier in the summer. Pay close attention to your plants, and hopefully you (and I) will avoid jellied garlic in the years to come.

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Author info

Trish Gannon Trish Gannon Owner and publisher of the River Journal since 2001, Trish works out of Clark Fork on the east end of Bonner County, a place she calls, simply, "the best place in the world to live." Mother of three, grandmother of two and an inveterate volunteer, Trish is usually tired.

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gardening, garlic, waxy breakdown

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