The Shape of Garlic


The root of the word “garlic” is “gar”, an Old English word meaning “spear.” When thinking about garlic, a spear might not be the first shape to come to mind, but the old Anglo Saxons were probably thinking of the plant’s tall leaves (called “scapes”) and not the part we commonly think of (the bulb). However, the garlic allium has its own unique shape–a shape that has spearheaded surprising medical and artistic developments.

According to the historical record, Greek physicians were the first to take interest in garlic’s distinct shape. According to the doctrine of signatures, a theory circulated by physicians in first century Greece, garlic’s medical applications could be determined using the concept of “resemblances” – meaning that whatever organ a particular herb or plant looked like determined the medical applications of that plant. Male physicians determined that the garlic bulb had a “phallic” shape and was therefore an aphrodisiac. This might also be the reason why garlic’s shape was combined with another familiar shape, the castle tower.

“Garlic domes”, more commonly known as “onion domes,” are a piece of architecture seen throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. They are most commonly incorporated into Russian Orthodox Churches. The domes are often gilded or painted bright colors and can be smooth or ribbed. They were a kind of architectural trick meant to give the illusion of height.

Around the turn of the 19th century, garlic designs and illustrations began to enter into the art and architecture of the art nouveau style. These two-dimensional depictions eventually faded with time but garlic’s three-dimensional influences on architecture and medicine have remained. Towers are still being topped with gigantic bulbs and, despite how wrong the doctrine of signatures is, garlic’s aphrodisiac qualities turned out to have some scientific basis.