Growing garlic from bulbils, the small round bulbs found in the scapes or stems of garlic, is generating new interest. The practice was brought to Canada by European immigrants, according to anecdotal evidence. By planting bulbils, growers can rejuvenate garlic strains and have a back-up source of garlic in case the bulbs die or become infected with disease.
Some growers use bulbils to develop a supply of planting stock at very low cost and to avoid the transmission of soilborne diseases. Usually, garlic is reproduced vegetatively by planting cloves from the underground bulb. Vegetative reproduction is sometimes referred to as cloning. The cloves are planted, generally in the fall, and each clove produces a bulb the following summer. Garlic also reproduces from bulbils produced in the scape (topset) of hardneck garlic or along the false stem of softneck. Bulbils are tiny, undivided bulbs that can be used as seed. Garlic does not have fertile flowers so it does not produce a true seed.
Bulb (head): the underground, rounded organ of vegetative reproduction in plants, such as the tulip, onion and garlic, containing the stored food for the reproductive shoot inside. The garlic bulb is divided into segments called cloves.
Bulbil: a small, round secondary clove, which can be smaller than a grain of rice or as large as a chickpea, produced in the scape of hardneck garlic or along the false stem of softneck.
Successive replanting of the progeny from the bulbils produces a strain superior to that produced from the cloves of the original mother plant.
Bulbils vary in size and appearance. In Porcelain garlic, for example, there may be up to 150 tiny, grain-size bulbils in a single capsule. On the other hand, Rocamboles may have only four bulbils, each the size of the fingernail on your little finger. The length of time to grow a full-size bulb varies considerably between varietal groups (see pg. 13).
Ted Maczka, the Fish Lake Garlic Man, showed that successive replanting of the progeny from the bulbils produces a strain superior to that produced from the cloves of the original mother plant. Our own early trials at Beaver Pond Estates support these findings. We initiated a long-term trial in 1999 to determine whether or not improved garlic strains can be developed through bulbil propagation.
Beaver Pond Estates Bulbil Project
In the first year, bulbils were allowed to mature on the plant and collected. They were planted in the fall around the same time as garlic bulbs, and harvested the following summer. The second cycle was started with rounds (i.e. bulbs from the harvest of the planted bulbils), again planting in the fall. Bulbils were planted 1 inch deep, rounds at 2 inches and cloves at 4 inches.
Successive cycles used the rounds or bulbs, whichever the strain produced, for replanting. In each cycle, the best samples were selected for planting. A control sample of the same strain was grown using cloves from the mother plant.
Plants grown from bulbils had less tip yellowing, suggesting less disease in the plant, compared to plants grown from cloves. Generally, the larger bulbils from the Rocamboles produced larger rounds in the first year than did the tiny bulbils from Porcelains or Siberians. Not all bulbil-grown plants produced larger bulbs than clove-grown ones. As well, replicating the process with a new set of bulbils did not necessarily produce the same results.
Conclusions cannot be made from a single experiment of growing a full-size bulb from a bulbil. Sound data is based on repeating the experiment numerous times. It was also obvious that help was needed if the information was to be gained during my lifetime. More data need to be collected from different regions and that data presented in a practical and usable form. I appealed to growers across Canada for help by means of the Bulbil Project (see box below.) I am still looking for more participants from some regions.
I send packages of bulbils to participants along with instructions for growing and recording. Project growers are asked to keep basic records (e.g. dates, quantities, sizes and/or weights, and observations).
|Varietal group*||Sub-variety||Example of
|No. of bulbils per
stem or capsule
|Years to grow
|Porcelain||Majestic||100-150||4-5||Produces rounds the first and second year; rounds or small, divided garlic the third year.|
|Rocambole||French||4-9||2-3||May produce either rounds or small bulbs the first year.|
|Purple Stripe||Czech Broadleaf||3-6||1-3||Large bulbils have produced 2-inch bulbs in first year, but usually do so in 2–3 years.|
|Purple Stripe||Marbled||Siberian||100-150||4-5||Some Marbled garlic appear identical to Porcelains.|
|Purple Stripe||Glazed||Purple Glazer
|1-5||2-3||About ¼ to ½ of plants develop stem bulbils. When planted, these tend to produce large rounds the first year.|
|3-10||Unknown||Weak bolting. Initial trials inconclusive.|
|4-100||Unknown||Weak bolting. Initial trials inconclusive.|
|Silverskin||F40||variable||Unknown||Occasional stem bulbils, some years develop topsets or scapes.|
|Silverskin||Creole||Native Creole||5-30||Unknown||Inconclusive data.|
Other bulbil projects
I’m pleased that growers across Canada are becoming interested in this advanced growing method. Sonia Stairs and Henry Caron of Boundary Garlic are now promoting and selling bulbils as part of their annual offering of garlic planting stock.
The Garlic Growers Association of Ontario has been struggling with the problem of disease in their Music strain of garlic since devastating commercial crop losses in 1987 and 1988. According to Becky Hughes of New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station, losses from virus-infected garlic are estimated to be between 25–50%. A government-funded program to produce clean seed was initiated using the tissue culture method and a bulbil growing trial.
How to grow garlic from bulbils
If you are going to collect bulbils, do not remove the scape. Let it mature on the plant until after the harvest of the other bulbs (i.e. those with scapes removed). This takes an extra week or two. You will likely forfeit the underground bulb, as it will be much smaller.
Carefully take the capsule from the scape and remove the bulbils from it. Store in a dry place until planting time.
Plant bulbils at the same time as you plant garlic (October in our region). Bulbils are planted 1-inch deep about 2 inches apart. You may plant directly in the garden but you risk infecting the new garlic with soilborne disease and losing the first-year plants among the weeds. It’s preferable to plant in containers filled with sterilized soil or potting mix. Bury these in the garden, slightly above the soil surface. Plant at least ten bulbils of each type. Mulch with straw. Next spring, weed and water the plants as you would with regular garlic.
Harvest the plants the following summer about the same time as garlic bulbs. Clean and cure the tiny crop. Some will have grown ‘rounds,’ small, undivided bulbs, while others may form a divided bulb in the first year. Plant your best ten cloves or rounds. Rounds and tiny cloves are planted two inches deep. Containers with sterilized soil are recommended. By the second or third harvest, you should be getting fairly good-sized bulbs, depending on the variety. I’ve had stubborn Porcelains refuse to grow anything but small rounds for four years before finally agreeing to form a divided bulb.
When you are in your last planting cycle, select some clove-grown bulbs (same strain) of the same size and weight and grow alongside the bulbil-grown ones. Both should be planted in the garden rather than in containers. Compare disease indications, size and colour of plant, and, following harvest, bulb size.
Good luck with your bulbil planting experiments. They will start you on the way to learning more about this most fascinating of vegetables.
Development of Superior Strains from Bulbils, The Garlic News, Issue 4, Summer 2005.
The Bulbil Project, The Garlic News, Issue 18, Winter 2008–09.
Growing Great Garlic, Ron L. Engeland. Filaree Productions. 1991 and 1995 Supplement.
The Complete Book of Garlic, Ted Jordan Meredith. Timber Press. 2008.