Information on Bulbils
What is a bulbil?
On some occasions, I offer bulbils for sale. What are bulbils- can you plant them, can you eat them? I’ll answer that all with a simple “yes” to start and then offer some caveats.
bulbils planted in November 2017, picture taken June 2018
First off, botanically, they are still not true seed, just like a clove isn’t. They’re asexual- a clone of the mother plant. Like a clove, they are scientifically speaking, a specialized storage leaf of the plant. They form at the tops of scapes, which is the hard stem of a hardneck garlic. Scapes are usually removed to let the plant focus on making a larger bulb size, but if given the chance, the top of the scape opens up to reveal the bulbils.
It's amazing how often the terminology is mixed up. I don't get the precise botany terms perfect every time, but understanding the principals is quite important. I've seen growers sell bulbils as "true seed" because it formed on the top of the plant. Unfortunately, true seed is harder than that, and must come from flowers and sexual reproduction. Bulbils are still just a clever cloning strategy on the part of garlic, and if you dissect one with a sharp knife, you'll see they're just glorified mini-cloves- juicy and wet storage bulbs just like below.
So, food-wise, they are as edible as a garlic clove. They have a tough outer skin, not at all different from a clove’s skin, that should be removed, but otherwise the inner texture is the same as a clove. They are fairly small, (especially the TINY bulbils of the Porcelain family) so most people don’t bother to eat them, but you can. A friend of mine once pickled an entire jar of bulbils. Anything is possible with free or cheap labor.
As far as planting goes, that’s where their best value comes in. Each garlic subfamily has a different bulbil strategy. Some garlic types make as few as 5 to 7 bulbils per plant, and they’re proportionately large. Other types can make a couple hundred super tiny bulbils- and of course, any number in between. The larger-bulbilled varieties can produce a multi-cloved bulb in that first season. Smaller bulbils, or more crowded bulbils, are more likely to make a round, the name for a bulb when it fails to get the signal to “clove out” and split itself into multiple viable cloves. A round is also completely edible- in fact there are some cuisines/recipes built around using rounds. Rounds are also some of the best planting stock there is, since it’s essentially a megaclove dedicated to one single mission- doing a better job than last year!
So if you plant a larger bulbil, you can expect to get a small/medium bulb by harvest, or at worst, a rather large “round.” Plant a smaller bulbil, like that of a Porcelain variety, and it’s likely to make a medium sized round the first harvest, and by replanting that, you will get a multicloved bulb the second harvest.
So why bother with bulbils? Well, it’s a superfast way to expand your seed stock. You won’t get the same monsters that first year, but you can jumpstart a variety on the cheap. Also, some people point out that planting a bulbil is a guarantee to avoiding soilborne/rootborne diseases of the previous year. I think you had better be careful with hand and tool hygiene if you really want to guarantee that, but it would possibly significantly reduce that risk.
Here’s a chart to illustrate the power of bulbils-
Now, I’ve simplified some things. I’ve removed natural losses that happen over than time- but the percentages are roughly similar so they don’t change it in an apples-to-apples comparison. Some people point out that at the first harvest, you have little to no fully functional product- not easy to eat, not easy to sell. But what happens at the next year is the big difference. Two years into the “program” and the bulbil start is looking pretty nice. Thanks to the power of exponentials, we can see that clove counts and varying bulbil counts have a strong effect on final outcomes.
Another thing to note is that since bulbils are a smaller plant, you will be planting more densely, so they won’t be taking up the same per-plant space. You can thickly sow bulbils (almost like you would a row of beets, or peas, since they are similar size) in a shallow trench, and grow them in a thick row, harvesting the little gems in batches. i have never used a seeder (like an Earthway) for bulbils, but in theory it could work.
All in all, I always believe in diversification of strategies. For established varieties, I sometimes use bulbils as planting stock so I have more bulbs to sell at market. For a Rocambole, every 8 bulbils I plant lets me sell one more 8-cloved bulb at market. And with TLC those bulbils will give a reasonable yield. For new varieties, I plant it all- cloves, bulbils, everything. My goal is to get plant population up, fast, and have more to pick from for selecting my strain.