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Bulbils are small secondary bulbs taking longer than standard bulbs to mature into bulbs with cloves. Growing bulbils over a few years results greater plant vigour, less disease, are great in cooking and is a more economic way of getting bulbs.
What are Bulbils?
Bulbils are small secondary bulbs normally produced in the flower cluster (umbel) beside the flowers. The eight hardneck varietal groups generally send up a long, strong stalk late in the season known as a scape. The scapes' flower stalk (technically an umbel) produces bulbils - this is an extra survival mechanism for the plant. Bulbils' size can be rice-sized to pea-sized depending on the varietal group. They are in fact clones of the plant just like the bulb and cloves. While people often call bulbs or cloves seed this is not strictly correct, it's just that until recently that was the only way to garlic could be grown. Around the bulbils of the scapes, flowers can form.
In botany, a bulbil (also called a bulbel or bulblet) forms on other types of plants and are defined as a secondary bulb located in the angle between a leaf and stem or in place of flowers such as with garlic. Bulbils are called offsets when full-sized, and if left fall to produce new plants.
There are many good reasons to grow bulbils despite them taking 1-5 years (depending on the garlic type) as they:
are a quick way of obtaining stock
are economical than buying bulbs but are slower to develop
reduce the risk of soil-borne disease
revitalise bulb size and condition
are great raw in salads, on pizzas or to spice up a meal
The softneck garlic types silverskin and artichoke do not normally produce the scape flower stem nor bulbils. Also, the semi-bolting garlic types turban, creole and asiatic may not produce scapes in mild-winter areas. Thus some garlic will not form bulbils unless they are put under environmental stress. We are lucky here in the cold deep south, as most years we get some bulbils from all our garlic groups.
Growing a garlic scape (without removing it) for most garlic groups will result in smaller bulb sizes. We discuss this in the section on scape removal. In brief, not removing the scape to try to grow bulbils will result in the bulb size being 10-30% smaller.
Depending on the garlic group, bulbils take between 2-5 years to produce mature-sized bulbs containing cloves not just rounds without cloves. The rate of maturity depends on the climate, soils and bulbil size as each garlic group produces different sized bulbils. The larger the bulbil the quicker the formation of a good-sized bulb.
The quickest way of getting bulbils is to get them from a fellow garlic gardener or to buy them. Gourmet Garlic are the only NZ supplier of bulbils. They can be found in our online shop. Each year we sacrifice the size of some of our bulbs to produce bulbils for our interested garlic growers.
When you are growing to produce garlic bulbils from your own plants, in year one (if your climate permits), grow a strongly bolting garlic such as porcelain, rocambole, standard purple stripe, marbled purple stripe or a glazed purple stripe. These are the most reliable garlic groups to grow bulbils from.
Let the scape grow, and at harvest time remove the plant to cure much like a garlic bulb. It is best to cut off the scape at this time and store it separately in an open container, allowing it to to dry out of the sun and weather. This will ensure that any bulbils that come loose do not get trampled, mixed with others or lost as they cure. Store them in a dry cool spot in an aerated paper bag until planting time.
Surprisingly, bulbils can be planted at the start of spring when daily temperatures reach around 18°C. This reduces the chance of the bulbils scaping and shortens the time taken to produce large bulbs. However, some growers still recommend a cooling winter is best for bulbil growth. If planting in a mild/cool winter area, you may consider pre-cooling them before planting.
Plant bulbils closer together than standard cloves, ideally in a separate area of the garden. These small plants will need a bit of care as weeds or other garden plants can shade them out. It is easy to mix them up with your standard crop - you don't want to lose track of these ones! You will need a little more room for the larger bulbil plants from asiatic and rocambole garlic types as they are from larger bulbils. In the first year prepare damp soil in a tray, pot, or in your garden bed and gently sprinkle the bulbils onto the soil. Put a light covering (mm not cm) of fine soil on top of them.
Studies have reported that bulbils are more productive and winter-hardy than using standard cloves. Ensure that the soil does not dry out and that there is sufficient soil depth for them to grow roots (10cm+). Shoots will appear quickly, and after a few months in summer they will dry out. If scapes appear remove them to give the bulbil the best chance for bulb production.
Harvest the small bulbil's bulb when the leaves dry out. Cure and store them just like any garlic bulb. At harvest the bulbil bulb will be a several times larger than the bulbil you planted. If you are growing from a large bulbil such as asiatic or rocambole you are likely to end up with a round bulb often with cloves. These large bulbil bulbs can be about 30mm wide. Medium sized bulbils normally produce rounds 20mm wide and the smallest bulbils from groups like porcelain, standard purple stripe and glazed purple stripe only form 10mm wide rounds.
The following year plant the bulbil bulb just like a normal bulb. Be aware of the climatic zone you live in and use our planting page to know when to plant. Larger bulbils normally take two years to produce normal sized bulbs with cloves, while other groups might take another year or two longer.
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