How to Plant & Grow Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)

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how to plant and grow society garlic tulbaghia violacea
Its vibrant, sweetly scented purple flowers make society garlic a beautiful addition to any garden or pond. Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / CC BY-SA

Society garlic, also known as wild garlic, is a member of the wild garlic genus Tulbaghia within the onion subfamily (Allioideae). Native to South Africa, Tulbaghia violacea’s name was derived from its flowers’ violet-like appearance; the genus Tulbaghia is dubbed so in honor of Ryk Tulbagh, governor of the Dutch East India Company’s outpost at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa during the 1750’s.

Since being discovered in the 1770’s, it has spread around the world as a popular garden plant due to its attractive, star-shaped lilac hue flowers that taste peppery and savory but smell sweet. Its long, grass-like leaves give off a light garlic fragrance when damaged or disturbed. Society garlic’s scent and flavor is owed to the high concentration of 2,4-Dithiapentane (bis(methylthio)methane) in all parts of the plant (but especially the rhizomes). 2,4-Dithiapentane is a chemical utilized prominently in seasonings, and is also found in truffles.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Society Garlic

The presence of this, as well as many other compounds, make this plant unpalatable to animals like deer and rabbits. In addition, these compounds and their constituents have been found to be highly antimicrobial, antibacterial, antioxidant, and antifungal. Historically, the leaves and bulbs of society garlic have been used by the Zulu people of South Africa for centuries to help treat ailments such as upset stomach, blood clots and blood pressure issues, asthma, fever, and even cancer. Some of these uses have even been backed up by studies, particularly those exploring T. violacea’s ability to inhibit cancer cell growth.

Not only is society garlic resistant to browsing by herbivorous mammals and some insects, it’s also a valuable plant to pollinators. Its petite flowers with tubular coronas are well-suited to smaller pollinators, like hummingbirds, small bees, and smaller species of butterflies that would otherwise have to compete with larger pollinators for resources at more sizable flowers.

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Society Garlic Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Perennial
USDA 7 – 10
Full sun to partial shade
Purple, pink
July – September (Summer)
Height 30 – 91 cm (12 – 36 in)
Just enough soil to cover bulbs
pH 6.5 – 7.5

Society Garlic Growth, Hardiness & Climate

society garlic growth and hardiness
Manuel Martín Vicente from Valdemoro, Spain / CC BY

Typically found in the well-draining soils of African grasslands during the rainy season, this plant does best when grown in moist (but not saturated) soils along your pond’s edge. Best planted in the spring once there’s no further chance of frost, society garlic typically grows to about a foot tall, though it can sometimes grow as much as three feet tall. Once full size is reached, its grass-like basal leaves can reach a diameter of around a foot.

As a native of South Africa, you may surmise that society garlic prefers mild temperatures. Zones 7 through 10 work best, but it seems to really thrive in zone 9. This is particularly true when provided full sun and ample moisture, but this plant can tolerate droughts (as do happen in even the wet-savannas of Africa) as well as partial shade. Do note that droughts and reduced sunlight will result in fewer flowers and, instead, more energy will be diverted into amplifying leaf and root production to better obtain resources.

Blooming typically begins in July, and can extend through September. Once temperatures begin to regularly drop into the 50’s Fahrenheit, society garlic will stop producing flowers and instead start channelling energy into its rhizomes to survive winter.

How to Plant Society Garlic In Ponds

how to plant society garlic
Society garlic grows best in moist, well-draining soils. El Grafo / CC BY-SA

Society garlic bulbs should be planted in just enough soil to cover them. They prefer well-draining soils, like sandy loam, but sand with some compost worked into the top few inches works well, too. Do keep in mind that compost could run into your pond if planted close to it, and therefore would add to the water’s nutrient load. If planting an already germinated plant, again plant it just deep enough to cover the roots and hold the plant upright.

As a savanna plant, society garlic won’t do well if planted in standing water. Instead, plant along the banks of your pond, far enough away that there isn’t standing water, but close enough that the soil is moist. Otherwise, you can plant it further away so long as you keep the soil moist during the growing season. Keep in mind that it produces a garlic-like smell when disturbed, so you may not want it along heavily trafficked walkways, but rather just far enough back to still be admired but not brushed against.

Society garlic spreads via rhizomes, but it’s not aggressive. Its root growth is somewhat slow, so you won’t need to worry about it overtaking the area. Therefore, you can plant it in pots if you would like (this makes it easier to transport during cold seasons), or you can simply place it directly in the ground.

How to Care For Society Garlic

society garlic with purple flowers
With ample sunlight and moisture, society garlic can produce large umbels of flowers. Bruce Tuten / CC BY-SA 2.0

Society garlic is a pretty easy plant to care for – keep it in a sunny, warm area, and water it regularly enough to keep the soil damp. If you forget to water it now and then, don’t fret; this plant is drought-tolerant thanks to evolving in the South African savannas that are known for both their soaking rains and bone-dry droughts. It won’t die if you forget to water it for a day or two, but if this occurs too often it may not produce many flowers.

As mentioned above, you can mix some compost into the soil when planting society garlic to provide it with ample nutrients. Be advised, though, that if planted close to your pond this compost may runoff into the water. To mitigate this, you can either plant society garlic in pots or simply make sure that your pond is well-filtered and aerated.

This plant does not spread quickly or aggressively, but after a couple of years you may have several clumps rather than only one. These can easily be dug up and separated, and replanted elsewhere if desired. As always, be sure to clean any dropped or clipped foliage from your pond to ensure healthy water quality.

How to Winter Society Garlic

As you might have guessed, society garlic does not tolerate cold temperatures. If temperatures drop below 50° F (10° C), T. violacea will begin to go dormant, which it can do for many months at a time. However, once temperatures drop below freezing, the leaves of society garlic will become damaged, and potentially the bulbs, as well. Move it indoors for the winter if possible, and don’t worry about keeping the soil moist – once dormant, the plant can be dry for months at a time. You may also elect to keep watering it, so as to maintain the foliage year round rather than letting it die down to the bulb.

Is Society Garlic Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

In short, society garlic is native only to South Africa and therefore invasive outside of this area. Some countries and states don’t consider it invasive, but rather non-native, since it’s not an aggressive plant, but nonetheless do try to obtain plants that are native (and legal!) in your area.

Plants that are similar in both appearance and function to society garlic include: Allium stellatum (prairie onion) if you’re in central Canada or the midwestern/eastern US; Allium campanulatum (Sierra onion) if you’re in the central or western US; or Allium ursinum (ramsons or wood garlic) if you live in the UK.

Society garlic is not toxic, and in fact is quite edible. One study conducted did find that the methanolic compounds of the plant’s rhizomes are not only non-toxic, but increase the body’s white blood cell count and therefore help boost the immune system.

Is Society Garlic Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Society garlic is edible, but due it its myriad strongly flavoured chemical compounds is unlikely to be eaten by fish. If they do eat any part of the plant, they should not be harmed. Many people enjoy eating it raw, or cooking it with meats, potatoes, and other savory dishes to add a gamey and garlicy flavor. Most animals, however, find its strong flavor to be quite unpalatable, and tend to avoid it. The only pest really known to occasionally eat T. violacea are snails.

Where to Buy Society Garlic & Seeds? (UK & US)

In the UK and US, society garlic can be easily obtained from plant nurseries as well as online outlets. Elsewhere, the easiest way to acquire it is likely from online retailers.

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