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  • Writer's pictureKathy Schermer-Gramm

Garlic painting takes part in the online NYBG's 4th Triennial exhibition 'Abundant Future'.


Abundant Future:Cultivating Diversity in Garden, Farm, and Field

Fourth New York Botanical Garden Triennial with the American Society of Botanical Artists

November 21, 2020 - March 26, 2021


watercolor on paper, 11x14"

Porcelain Hardneck Garlic Scapes (Allium sativum)

It is with excitement and gratitude that I have found my garlic scares watercolor painting in company with the wonderful artists in the 'Abundant Future' collaborative exhibition between the NY Botanical Garden and the American Society of Botanical Artists. As with many other events currently happening, the exhibition is not being held at the NYBG but may be viewed online instead. Later the exhibition will travel to different venues around the states.

View NYBG exhibition below -

ASBA exhibition catalog link -



In late spring, hardneck garlic sends up fantastical, looping, false flower stalks. As they emerge, the scapes loop and curl before stretching skyward up to four feet above the ground. Quite impressive also is the sight of these succulent green coils piled high in baskets at a farmers’ market, awaiting someone with an adventurous palette. Porcelain garlic is wilder in heat and flavor than other garlic, and it is valued for a high level of allicin, a sulfur compound. Garlic has been used for at least six thousand years to fight infections and to support health as well as to flavor food.

Graphite sketchbook studies

In the North Carolina Piedmont, a small but dedicated group of farmers have taken on hardneck garlic in a big way. An expensive and needy crop, the scapes were once considered a waste product of no value. They were snapped off early at the coiling stage so that the plant could focus energy on bulb production. More recently these tender, garlicky, asparagus-like scapes have become a highly sought delicacy for gourmets and a much-appreciated cash crop for farmers.

The porcelains produce a single row of four to seven large cloves with extremely white papery skins that surround a woody, bolting flower stalk. Because the inflorescence is sterile, the garlic develops cloves in the bulb or bulbils in the umbel that are then planted to produce a new plant. Genetic diversity for garlic is maintained through the USDA by cryopreservation of the germplasm, as very little true seed exists, and cloves rarely last for more than one season.

In the wilds of the Caucasus Mountain steppes where porcelains have been grown for millennia, the plants are found growing deep within the poor and rocky soil of dry streambeds, appearing rather spindly. Sometimes only the scape and umbel are visible, quite unlike the robust, cultivated garlic raised in fertile soil. Porcelain garlic is so uniform in its genetic footprint that individual characteristics arise due to the environment it is grown in and not by differing cultivars.

'Music' porcelain hardback seed garlic

The garlic depicted here is the ‘Music’ garlic, named for Al Music of Ontario, Canada. As with so many stories of heirloom edibles, this garlic was passed down over countless generations and entered many cuisines, with immigrants carrying prized bulbs as they settled in new lands. Originating in Central Asia, this garlic made its way on the Silk Road and Spice Routes to the Mediterranean, and it was considered an heirloom of an Italian farmer who made his way to Canada. This Italian farmer’s heirloom was then passed on to a Polish farmer, who in turn passed it on to his Yugoslavian immigrant neighbor, Al Music. Music was so enamored by the beautiful white bulbs with easy-to-peel skins that he gave bulbs to friends near and far, until today it is the most popular hardneck garlic grown in Canada. Since it was introduced here in North Carolina, I feel I am a part of this tradition by including it in my own garden, and I plan to enjoy it for seasons to come.

Small section of my garden garlic patch

I have enjoyed painting alliums in the past, and when I came across these, I knew it would be a wonderful challenge to create an interesting portrait from something as simple as spiraling green coils with no fine details. My goal was to focus on the golden ratio seen in the form of the coils, and to create an abstracted calligraphic image with botanical accuracy, to create a present-day vision of this contemporary food while giving tribute to the garlic as an ancient food crop.

Silverskin softneck garlic

A technique I frequently use to give a piece a sense of historical significance is to alter the appearance of the watercolor paper by staining or “faux aging” the background, without allowing the process to detract from the botanical image. I was looking to place the garlic far back in time, to suggest medicinal herbs as they might appear on ancient Roman frescoes. Another reason to use a stained background is to allow the image to hover over the background in a way that the original white of the paper cannot do. To manipulate the paper I add and subtract many watercolor layers of earth tones before painting the subject. To suggest the fresco appearance I went so far as to visually destroy the background, allowing the garlic scapes to emerge from what I imagined as an ancient space. Here my challenge was to create depth with very subtle changes in color, contrast, and value, allowing the scapes to intermingle and spiral back into the void.


Not only was creating the artwork a challenging project in many aspects, many thanks go to number of botanists, writers, historians, geneticists, as well as farmers whose obsession with garlic helped to insure the research into the history.

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