Garlic Scapes: The Forgotten Vegetable

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Yep, those garlic scapes you’ve been cutting off are perfectly edible! Photo: http://www.bonappetit.com

If you’re into growing hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscordon), you may be missing half the harvest. 

Many gardeners don’t realize that the plant’s scape is perfectly edible and even delicious … and that harvesting it actually helps to give you a bigger garlic bulb later in the summer. 

What Is a Garlic Scape?

Twisty, curly garlic scapes. Photo: http://www.freshcityfarms.com

Now, a garlic scape (stem) is a curious thing. It originates under the ground, rising from the old bulb now starting to produce offsets (cloves), and starts to grow up through the plant’s leaves. It heads straight for the sky at first, then it begins to twist. It does a full circle, then a second one, a true loop the loop any roller coaster would be proud of. Then, apparently realizing the ridiculousness of the idea, it straightens up. However, the oddity of it isn’t over. 

The flowers never open, but the bulbils are there and can be harvested. Photo: goingtoseed.wordpress.com

The bud at its tip soon starts to swell. Hey, the flowers are coming, right? Wrong! When the spathe (envelope) splits open, there isn’t an open flower to be seen. Instead, the umbel is full of tiny green flower buds that simply abort and little bulbs called bulbils. 

So, where is the pollination, the crossing of two different garlics via the transfer of pollen, the thing bees do? And the seeds “carrying the mixed genes of both parents” which our high school biology course taught us to expect? It just doesn’t happen, except maybe in a laboratory.

Somehow, over the course of its evolution as a vegetable (garlic is a garden plant not found in the wild), it “forgot” how to reproduce via seed and now instead produces perfect replicas of itself in the form of bulbils. You can plant these bulbils and grow (eventually) more garlic plants, but that takes three years, so most gardeners instead plant garlic cloves (divisions of the bulb) for a harvest the following year. Faster. Simpler.

In other words, pretty much nobody wants the bulbils, meaning the scape is essentially useless to the production of garlic bulbs. Worse yet, letting the scape mature reduces the size of the bulb the plant is producing, as it wastes precious energy in engendering worthless bulbils. Bummer!

Harvesting the Scape

Cut off the scapes just where they emerge from the leaves. Photo: gardenpunchlist.blogspot.com

But you can save the day by removing the scape before it “goes to seed” (produces bulbils). Just cut it off at the base, right above the uppermost leaf. Good riddance! And you’ll now get bigger garlic bulbs with bigger cloves inside. But don’t toss it into the compost. Eat it! 

Sauteed garlic scapes and mushrooms. Photo: fromthefamilytable.com

In early summer, when the stem has done one and a half to two turns and is still tender, cut it off. Bring it into the house and cook it up. You’ll discover you have a whole new vegetable: tasty, sweet and definitely garlicky, but not as strong as a garlic clove. Think of it as being like a green onion, something you can chop up and use raw in salads and soups, grill, bake, fry, boil or steam as a vegetable, or use in all sorts of recipes, from omelets to pizza. 

Pickled garlic scapes. Photo: puttingupwiththeturnbulls.com

If you have a lot, you can store the scapes in the fridge for up to three weeks. More than a lot? Freeze or pickle them. You’ll discover a whole new way of cooking when you start using garlic scapes!

Oops, I Waited Too Long!

If you’re too late and the scape of your garlic plant starts to straighten, it will soon become tough and stringy, not worth harvesting for the kitchen. Still, removing it remains worthwhile. Remember, when you cut it off, the plant redirects what energy it has left into producing a bigger, better bulb.

So, you now have a nearly woody garlic scape you can’t eat. Just toss it into the compost … and harvest earlier next year!

My Garlic Didn’t Produce a Scape

That’s because only hard-necked garlic (A. sativum ophioscordum) does so. This is the garlic usually grown in regions with cold winters. Soft-necked garlic (A. sativum sativum), typically the garlic grown where winters are mild, doesn’t produce a scape at all, or only very rarely. So, with soft-necked garlic, you have no scape to pick. Just learn to live with it! 

But Something Is Eating My Garlic Scapes!

Leek moth damage to a garlic scape. Not much to eat here! Photo: veggiepatchreimagined.blogspot.com.

Yes, and that would be the leek moth (Acrolepiopsis assectella, syn. Acroplepia assectella), a pest whose larvae love to munch on the stems, leaves and bulbs of different alliums (leeks, onion, garlic, etc.). It’s found throughout Europe and Asia and has recently set up shop in southeastern Canada (Ontario and Quebec) and northeastern United States (New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine) where it is spreading fast. So, if you don’t have it, you may well one day.

You can read more about this new pest here: Leek Moth: Coming Soon to an Onion Near You!

You’re not going to want to eat a wormy garlic scape, so forget the “cook it up” bit above, but you should still cut the scape off to reap the benefits of a larger bulb. Do so early, as soon as you see any damage. That way, if you remove the scape while the grub is still on or in it, that’s one less pest that might descend into the bulb and ruin it.


Garlic scapes: a vegetable you won’t regret discovering!

6 thoughts on “Garlic Scapes: The Forgotten Vegetable

  1. Love garlic scapes. When we did farmers’ market, we actually made more money selling the scapes than the garlic bulbs! Good, informative article and great photos.

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