Garlic: The Pungent Panacea


Garlic is a member of the lily family, Liliaceae. It is a relative of the onion and leek, and other related species containing the aromatic sulfur-based compounds which contribute to the characteristic odor and taste, as well as garlic’s beneficial healing effects. Although the traditional garlic, Allium sativum L., is from the old world, the new world has its share of aromatic, sharp-tasting wild onions and garlic-like plants. I remember many times, while camping in the high Sierra, harvesting the bulbs of various species of these two plants and adding them to trail stews and soups.

The Names

Linnaeus described Allium sativum in the first edition of Species Plantarum (1753). He carried on the name from Bauhin, who published it in his Theatri botanici, 1623. The name can be seen further back, in Dodoens, whose first English edition of his Herbal, translated by Lyte, dates from 1578, and in Turner, who wrote the second English herbal in 1551 (after Bankes, 1525), calling garlic Allium sylvestre. But the name Allium is by far more ancient than this. The Greeks called it scorodon or skorothon and the Romans, notably Plautus, Varro, Horace, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, allioum or Allium.


DeCandolle in his Origin of Cultivated Plants concluded that garlic was indigenous to Europe and Western Asia and that people “cultivated such form of the species just as they found it from Tartary to Spain, giving it names more or less different.” He bases this partly on the fact that it does not occur in herbariums or floras of Sicily, Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Algeria, Egypt, China, or Japan as a wild plant. Examining the philology, one notices that the names are diverse, and often a derivative connection cannot be seen from one region to another. One exception is the English name garlick, which may have come from the Welsh garlleg. Though another explanation for the name is that it derives from gar-leek, signifying its similarity to its relative, the ancient leek, or from the Anglo-Saxon gar-leac, meaning “spear-plant,” a reference to its sharp, lance-shaped leaves and spear-like unopened flowering head. According to DeCandole, the only land where garlic was shown with any certainty to be actually observed in its wild state is in the desert of the Kirghis of Sungari (Manchuria). Pickering, whose monumental work, Chronological History of Plants, documents our historical connection with plants through the ages, agrees with De Candolle, saying that garlic is “of the plains of Western Tartary.”

History of Use

Because garlic has so many name variations in such diverse cultures, it is certain that the plant has been under cultivation for a long time. Garlic is also one of the few herbs that was and still is used in all 3 great healing systems of the world—Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Traditional European Medicine. If one reviews the many uses ascribed to garlic in all of these healing systems, as well as the popular uses by the people of their respective cultures, one sees remarkable similarities. For instance, it was considered a protective plant against evil influences among the Hindus, Scandinavians, Greeks and Germans, among others. To this day it is bought on the eve of Saint John’s day in some European countries as a guarantee of financial success during the rest of the year.

Traditional European Medicine

In Traditional European Medicine, garlic was an important food and medicine of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, and Egyptians. It was popular with the ancient Egyptians, according to Herodotus, and has been found in Egyptian burial sites, even in the tomb of Tutankhamen. It has even been said that the Egyptians considered it a “God” (Soyer). Though archeological evidence of garlic’s use is scant, it is known that the plant was considered “unclean” by the priests and so may not have been used commonly in burial rituals. Then, as today, garlic may not have been as accepted as an “official” drug but was widely used by the common people. In Coptic medicine garlic macerated in oil was prescribed for skin diseases and to be taken after birth, as it was thought to stimulate milk production. The Assyrians mentioned garlic as a food and medicine many times. They used it as an antibiotic, to fill rotten teeth, The Greeks gave garlic a mixed review. Soyer said that they “held it in horror,” but that it was generally eaten by warriors to excite their courage and lust for the battle, and by sailors, who would always have a good store of it on hand for sea voyages. However, much of the surviving writings of the Greeks and Romans suggest that garlic was used in pharmaceutical preparations more than almost any other herb or food. Pliny was particularly effusive in singing its praises. In the Hippocratic school, garlic was recommended to be used as a fumigant for aiding in the release of the placenta. For running sores, they applied a mixture of the ashes of garlic and oil. For asthma, the cooked form was used more often than the raw. Theophrastus has little to say about the healing properties of garlic but does mention that it was eaten and followed with a “draught of neat wine” by root diggers when they were gathering hellebore, because otherwise the poisonous properties of the hellebore would soon makes the “head heavy.” Pliny, that perennial optimist, or uncritical quoter of quacks, depending on how one wants to view him, has much that is good to say about garlic. In fact, his accounts of it would be much more readable were he to say what garlic was not good for. “Garlic has powerful properties,” he emphasizes, writing of how it was esteemed by some, stating that people swear by it as one would to the deities when taking an oath. He reminds us again that it is with the country people that garlic finds its most frequent use, saying, “Garlic is believed to be serviceable for making a number of medicaments, especially those used in the country,” perhaps not the least of which was, because of its pungent smell, for warding off scorpions, serpents and perhaps (as some said) “every kind of beast.” Pliny also gives us detailed information about the cultivation, storage, and uses of garlic. Even in those days, a main objection to the use of the plant was the lingering smell one had after its use. The chewing of parsley was not mentioned as an antidote as is recommended today, but he does recommend planting garlic “when the moon is below the horizon” and gathering it “when it is in conjunction,” which would “prevent them from having an objectionable smell.” Others thought that the best time for planting was between the Feast of the Crossways and the Feast of Saturn (May 2 to December 17).

Pliny’s Uses of Garlic

  • Keeps off serpents, but after they have bitten, the cloves and leaves are roasted and added to oil to be applied as a liniment
  • Repels scorpions and other beasts
  • Good for shrew bites and dog bites (as an ointment with honey)
  • Effective for healing hemorrhoids “when taken with wine and brought up by vomiting”
  • Neutralizes the poisonous qualities of aconite and henbane
  • Excellent for bruises, even after they have swollen into blisters
  • Useful taken with vinegar for relieving tooth-ache
  • Garlic mixed with goose-grease is placed into the ears
  • Relieves hoarseness, checks phthiriasis and scurf if taken boiled with milk or beaten up with soft cheese
  • Cooked in oxymel (vinegar and honey) it removes tape-worms and other parasites in the intestines
  • Mixed with fat, it cures suspected tumors
  • Epilepsy may be cured when garlic is taken in food
  • Garlic brings sleep
  • It improves circulation, making the body of a “ruddier color.”
  • Garlic acts as an aphrodisiac when taken in wine with coriander

Pliny also quotes the uses of garlic by other physicians. He says that Diocles recommended putting a clove of garlic in a split fig, to be taken as a purge, or well-boiled for phrenitis (a form of madness); Praxagoras blended garlic with wine for jaundice, and with oil and pottage for “iliac passion (severe colic) or scrofula. In the Materia Medica of Dioscorides (1st century A.D.), so widely quoted by future herbalists and physicians alike, Allium sativum is referred to as Skorodon, but several other wild species are also mentioned as being more active. All of the uses of garlic quoted seem to refer to the wild species. Dioscorides warns that they (the various species of garlic) expel flatulence, but disturb the belly and dry the stomach, causing thirst, puffing up, and producing boils on the skin, and dulling the eyesight. The healing qualities of garlic are also clearly enumerated. As previously mentioned, Dioscorides foreshadowed the popular, scientifically-supported use of garlic for cardiovascular ailments by saying that it “clears the arteries and open[s] the mouths of the veins. Also mentioned is garlic’s long-standing use as an anthelmintic, as a protectant from bites of venomous beasts (dogs and vipers), for the removal of sputum and relief of coughs, for healing running ulcers, leprosy, tooth pains, and as a stimulant to the menstrual flow. Galen said that garlic was referred to as Theriaca Rusticorum, or the husbandman’s treacle, which showed its popularity as a medicine for poisonous bites. He also mentions that boiling the bulbs causes it to lose its sharpness and “retaineth no longer his evill juyce.” The ambivalent attitude about the benefits of garlic continued through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In 1368, for instance, King Alphonso of Castile had an extreme repugnance to garlic and made it a statute of knighthood that if a knight were to eat it, he would not be allowed to appear before the sovereign for at least a month. When considering how the popularity of garlic as a medicine rose or fell over the centuries after Galen, the Persian literature of the middle ages stands out as a rich source of information on pharmacy and medicine, but it is often misleading, for much of what has been translated into English or other European languages draws heavily from Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, among others. For instance, in both the Materia Medica of Al-Samarqandi and that of Al-Kindi, one reads uses quoted from Dioscorides, and little that is new except a small quote from Al-Kindi (a Persian physician) who recommended garlic for “pain due to ear inflammation, and for its suppuration, pulsation and its fistulas.” The Renaissance herbalists were somewhat less enthusiastic and more discriminating than the Greeks about the virtues of garlic and accepted that a food or medicine as hot and drying as garlic is suitable for some people and not others, depending on their underlying constitution (hot, dry, cold, or moist, etc.). For instance, Gerard says that garlic “yeeldeth to the body no nourishment at all, it ingendreth naughty and sharpe bloud. Therefore such as are of a hot complexion must especially abstaine from it.” Gerard and Johnson (1633) says that garlic is “very sharpe, hot, and dry, as Galen saith, in the fourth degree, and exulcerateth the skinne by raising blisters.” In England, where it would be a major problem, due to the cold, damp climate, garlic was recommended in cold phlegm conditions. According to Gerard again, garlic “attenuateth and maketh thinne thicke and grosse humors; cutteth such as are tough and clammy, digesteth and consumeth them.” As a protectant, it was praised for the “bitings of venomous beasts, even in so seemingly innocuous or uncommon as the “bitings of the Mouse called in English, a Shrew.” In Renaissance England, plagues were a common part of life. Garlic was among the most revered medicines for protecting one against any kind of pestilence as a “preservative against the “contagious and pestilent aire,” as Gerard tells us. Another Renaissance herbalist, Culpeper, in his famous translation and commentary on the Pharmacopeia Londenensis (1650), merely quotes Dioscorides verbatum. In 18th Century England, garlic could be found in various pharmaceutical preparations. It was often macerated in wine, vinegar, oil, or honey, all of which extracted, to some extent, its acrid properties for internal or external use. The excellent Dr. William Lewis (1791), says that “vinegar and honey excellently coincide with and improve this medicine, as a detergent and deobstruent, in disorders of the breast.” In fact, herbalists today often make preparations of garlic for coughs, colds, and other chest complaints by macerating garlic in these media. Lewis, in his Materia Medica (1791) reports, that some writers and doctors praise it, but some condemn it “not only as an offensive, but as a noxious drug.” Lewis explains that the reason for the mixed reviews garlic had received was due to constitutional differences. He says of it that:

To warm and stimulate the solids, attenuate thick humours, and resist putrefaction, seem to be its primary virtues. Hence, in hot bilious constitutions, where there is already a degree of irritation, where the juices are thin and acrimonious, or the viscera or intestines unsound, it is apparently improper, and seldom fails to produce head-aches, flatulencies, thirst, febrile heats, and inflammatory symptoms in various shapes. In cold sluggish phlegmatic habits, on the other hand, it proves a salutary and powerful corroborant, expectorant, diuretic, and, if the patient is kept warm, sudorific.

Lewis goes on to recommend its uses for loss of appetite, and humoral asthmas, as well as dropsy, especially in the beginning, when it can prevent a “new accumulation of water after evacuation.” This latter use is supported by Sydenham who claims to have seen dropsies “cured by the use of garlic alone.” As an application to the soles of the feet, it was used in the “low stage of acute distempers” by stimulating the cardiovascular system to relieve the head. The influential Dr. Cullen adds that when used externally, garlic is “not so apt to ulcerate the part as mustard, more capable of being absorbed, and extending its action to remote parts.” Another authoritative work of late 18th century England is the Medical Botany of William Woodville, M.D., who was a member of the Royal College of Physicians. Woodville strongly delineates the uses and contraindications of garlic for people with different constitutions. He emphasizes that although it “stimulates the stomach and favors digestion,” its effects are pervasive throughout the body and thus is more useful as a condiment with the food of “phlegmatic people.” This is a reference to people who are apt to accumulate mucus in their systems, and being more cold than hot. He summarizes the current medical uses of garlic as: expectorant in asthmas and other pulmonary complaints (without inflammation), as a diuretic in dropsies, to remove worms, as an external application to remove tumors, and as an ear remedy (for which it is still recommended today by herbalists). Woodville mentions that garlic is used in a variety of ways, including swallowing the clove whole (after it is dipped in oil), or after cutting it into pieces, and in pills after it is “beaten up.” Although a syrup and oxymel of garlic had been official in the British Pharmacopeia, by the time Woodville’s work was written (1790), it had been removed. In the U.S., the Eclectic doctors, a medical school based on the use of predominantly herbal remedies, practiced roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s. One of the most respected practitioners among the Eclectics was John King, who said of garlic in his American Dispensatory (1877) that it acts as a tonic to the stomach and is useful for coughs, cattarrhs, whooping-cough, hoarseness, and worms. He mentions that preparations were made by mixing the juice of garlic with sweet oil of almonds and glycerin, which was dropped into the ears for atonic deafness. He also recommended its use in children’s diseases, and as a “resolvant in indolent tumors.” He gives the dose of fresh garlic as from one-half drachm to two drachms, and of the juice, half a drachm (about 2 ml). King warns that if garlic is used too freely, or when one’s system is already in a state of excitement, that it might cause “flatulence, gastric irritation, hemorrhoids, headache and fever.” Finally, the U.S. Dispensatory, 21st edition (1926) says that the use of garlic was, at the present time, “limited chiefly to pulmonary complaints, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma and sometimes whooping-cough.” The most popular preparations were said to be the syrup, made from fresh garlic, recognized by the National Formulary, which is given in the dose of 1-2 teaspoonfuls (4-8 ml). Garlic was official in the U.S. Pharmacopeia (1820-1890) and the NF (1916-1926).


Garlic was known as mahoushudha in Sanscrit. The plant is well-known as a food and medicine of the Hindus and is called rasona in the Raja Nirghanta. Other Hindi names are suggestive of its many uses, such as Ugra-gandha “strong-smelling,” mahanshadha “panacea,” bhuta-ghna “destroying demons,” and so forth. Dymock, in his classic Pharmacographia Indica (1890), mentions that the Hindus consider garlic to be “tonic, hot, digestive, aperient, cholagogue and alterative.” As in European practice, the bulbs were macerated with honey or other sweeteners, or crushed into foods to help relieve coughs and mucus conditions, fevers, swellings, gonorrhea, colic, rheumatism, and worms. In India, spicy herbs are often boiled in milk, not only to render the milk more assimilable, because of their ability to stimulate digestion, but as a way to mitigate their harshness. Garlic was commonly boiled in milk and taken in small doses for such diverse conditions as hysteria, flatulence, sciatica, and heart disease. The ancient Sanskrit name, mahanshadha, which means panacea, is truly justified, if one accepts its efficacy in all these conditions.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Garlic, or Suan, was known to the ancient Chinese people from before written records. It was first mentioned in the Calendar of the Hsia, which was written two thousand years before the time of Christ. Probably the most famous historic medical figure in China is the Yellow Emperor, who was said to set forth the principals by which Traditional Chinese Medicine is practiced, as well as rules for maintaining health by being in harmony with the ways of nature. A legend is told about the beginning of use and cultivation of garlic, which was written in the Erh-ya. It is told in this legend that the Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti, and some of his followers were poisoned by eating an aroid plant called yu-yu, but after eating the garlic they found growing on the spot, their lives were saved. The Pentsao., the most famous materia medica of TCM, says that the consumption of garlic is forbidden to the Buddhist priests and to people who are fasting. The therapeutic uses of garlic, as in other cultures, were numerous but considered to have a special influence on the TCM organs, such as the spleen (which transforms and assimilates food and has to do with metabolism and energy production); and the kidney, which stores vital energy and sends it out to other organs and tissues; and the stomach, which ripens and rots food to get it ready for the spleen. It was also thought to remove poisons from the body, correct the unwholesomeness of water, and to eliminate the noxious effects of putrid meat and fish and to keep plagues away. It can be noted that most of these uses are similar to ones found in TEM and Ayurveda. As we have seen, the popularity of garlic has not waned over the centuries. In fact, we are currently undergoing an increased awareness and appreciation of this ancient “pungent panacea.”


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Formerly published in Pharmacy in History


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