Information on Bulbils
What is a bulbil?
You may see that for some garlic varieties, 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, 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.
So, food-wise, they are as edible as a garlic clove. They have a tough outer skin, not too 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 true value comes in. Each garlic subfamily has a different bulbil strategy. Asiatics and Turbans make as few as 5 to 7 bulbils per plant, and they’re proportionately large. Rocamboles are similar at 7-10 bulbils. Porcelain opt to make a couple 100 tiny bulbils. 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, coincidentally, is also completely edible (in fact there is some Asian cuisine built around using rounds) and 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 a Porcelain’s, 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 still would 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.
All in all, I always believe in diversification of strategies. For established varieties, I 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.