What’s in a flower?

Flash in the Pan

In garlic patches across the Northern Hemisphere, green shoots are silently creeping from the tops of plants. Over the next few weeks these shoots will curl themselves around in circles like coiled snakes. If left alone they will uncurl themselves and stand straight up, reaching as high as 6 feet tall. The technical name for this floral apparatus is “scape,” but I just call them garlic flowers.

Whatever you call them, they have a sweet garlicky flavor and a mesmerizing shade of neon green. Their whimsical shapes are conducive to twirling around fingers and dipping into sauce, which helps make garlic flowers the stuff of epic outdoor parties. Invite your friends, eat garlic flowers off the grill, or simply wrap them around your wrists and sip wine like the Greek god of garlic would, if only there were such a thing.

Worldwide, garlic flowers are most popular in Asia, although they are eaten in Europe, North America, and everywhere else garlic is grown. My first garlic flower experience was on a Mongolia-bound train in Manchuria, China. In the menu-less dining car, I was served a dish of stir-fried pork and chopped garlic flowers in what I guessed was oyster sauce.

Garlic flowers are a byproduct of garlic cultivation. They are removed to encourage the plant to divert would-be sexual energy into growing a big root—AKA the head of garlic. This is the same principle that’s behind the castration of livestock, like steers and hogs, which are grown for meat. Without the option of expending bodily resources on sexual reproduction—AKA, balls—the organism grows larger. Some gardeners, citing “plant integrity” concerns, don’t pick off their garlic flowers. OK. Whatever. I just want a big bulb.

Garlic cultivation is currently waning in the United States because the market’s flooded with cheap garlic from China. Even in Gilroy, Calif., where most U.S. garlic is grown, processors are buying Chinese garlic and reselling it—apparently this is cheaper than importing Mexicans to grow it in California.

The more that garlic cultivation is outsourced, the fewer garlic flowers will be available for consumption at home. But even if we did grow all of our garlic here, the flowers would still be rare because the garlic variety that’s most popular with the biggest garlic growers, from Gilroy to Guangzhou, doesn’t even flower.

This variety, called “softneck” garlic, isn’t as flavorful as the flowering, or “hardneck” variety. Softneck garlic is a relative pain to peel—the peel comes off in wispy thin layers that stick to your fingers. The cloves are often smaller, plus those annoying extra-small ‘runt cloves.’ In other words, from a cook’s perspective, softneck garlic is totally inferior.

But since softneck cultivation requires less labor—no flower-picking necessary, making it easier and cheaper to grow—it’s popular among growers. It also holds a little better in storage, while commanding the same price as hardneck. This is why if you only shop at the grocery store, you may never have even tried hardneck garlic.

The hard or soft “neck” in question is the flowering stalk itself, which becomes woody as the flower uncurls. You can tell if a bulb of garlic is a hard or soft neck by pressing in the middle. Hardnecks have a solid axis in the center of the bulb, around which the cloves are aligned.

While most Gilroy or China grown garlic is of the non-flowering softneck variety, an increasing number of small-scale, gourmet growers are cultivating hardneck garlic for all the right reasons: it tastes better, peels like a prom dress, produces large beautifully symmetrical bulbs, and sends up those yummy flowers. As more people catch onto the difference, the market for hardneck is growing.

To find some garlic flowers try the farmer’s market in early summer. In my experience, it’s usually the Asian farmers who are selling it by the bundle. Or, ask any farmer if they grow hardneck garlic. If “yes,” ask about their flowers. Often they won’t even bother bringing flowers to market, but if they know you want some they will.

And if you planted garlic last October, and your garlic plants are belly-high, by all means pick those flowers before they uncurl—at which point the neck will get too tough to chew. I just pull straight up with a smooth gentle tug, like pulling a blade of grass.

Cut off the flower’s dry tip, and the rest of the apparatus—stalk and flower—is edible. You can do anything with these funky things that you would do with regular garlic, like chopping or pressing them into your food to add flavor. Or cook them whole, like asparagus or beans, and serve drizzled in lemon butter aside your “proteins.” Add garlic flowers to a pot of simmering Thai coconut chicken soup, two minutes before serving, and watch the neon green coils curve around the serving bowl. Or try Asian style: Chop the garlic flowers and stir-fry them with bacon, basil, and oyster sauce, and serve on rice—like they do on the trains in China.