Mystery Plant! #782

John Nelson

Posted 7/10/24

By John Nelson

“And, most dear actors, eat no onions
nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath…”
                        Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 4, Scene 2

            Faithful readers of this little column will probably remember from somewhere along the line that I have indicated my great fondness for preparing dried, pressed plant herbarium specimens, each of which ends up with a printed label indicating when and where the plant was collected, and the various conditions observed where the plant was growing. I’ve been doing this since college years, long ago, and it is part of my inner directive by now. The thing is, it’s really easy to find plants which lend themselves to be turned from living, photosynthesizing organisms into two-dimensional, scientific objects carefully attached to sheets of high-quality, acid-free paper, hopefully to be cared for by a conscientious curator…indefinitely.

My plant collecting habits have yielded a number of adventures, and in a variety of kinds of places. I am one of those botanists who delights in weedy roadsides, rather than just the “special habitats” that a number of botanists, perhaps a bit more cerebral than I, tend to like investigating. I like to think that I am a botanist who is easily pleased by just about any stretch of ground featuring plant life: there’s always something interesting.

So imagine what it’s like for me, the traveling botany geek, to drive around in the country and suddenly come upon an old homesite replete with luxuriant weeds, but perhaps even more interesting, relics of old gardens. All sorts of plants, previously cared for, will happily persist and bloom, often splendidly, long after the tenants have disappeared. There’s a rather indelicate term for  browsing around old, forgotten landscapes featuring tumble-down farmhouses: “shack botany”.  Here’s a plant that can sometimes be found in forgotten homesteads and garden plots of the Southeast.

(Photo by John Nelson.)

Actually by now, it can be found just about anywhere in the USA. It’s native to eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, and was widely appreciated by the ancient Romans and Greeks. It is a plant belonging to the same species which gives us the cultivated “leek”…but this is a variety which differs considerably. It arises from a huge bulb, just about as big as your fist, made up of massive cloves, much like the regular “garlic” of commerce (which is actually a completely different species).

Widely cultivated in North America for a long time, this plant got popular back in the 1950s for a while, but not so many pay attention to it these days. But it can still be found in old garden plots or even along disturbed roadsides. The plants, when I’ve seen them, are usually in a patch, with stems easily 3’ tell, sporting an impressive “ball” (an umbel, thank you) of stalked flowers.

The cloves produced by the bulb have a strong garlic smell and taste, although they say not as strong as the “real” garlic from the supermarket. I will have to say, though, that the cloves, when spread out on a cookie sheet and baked with a glaze of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, yield a truly memorable kitchen aroma. And taste.

[Answer:  “Elephant garlic,” Allium ampeloprasum]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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