The story of the Cangshan Garlic, also called “Hu” or “Hu garlic”, starts centuries ago, having been cultivated for over 1,900 years in the Lanling County (former Cangshan County), Linyi City, Shandong Province in China.
“A long, long time ago a Chinese emperor travelled to the south. On this journey he caught a cold and became very poorly. Someone handed him a plant, a country doctor most likely. The emperor took one of the leaves and sniffed at it and his cold disappeared. This is how the plant came to people’s attention. At the time, it was referred to as the nine-leaved-plant. Today it’s known as garlic”, a garlic farmer shared the tale of the plant’s discovery in a Britannica documentary.
In the Western Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian brought back Hu garlic from his travels. The new variety was larger than the allium bakeri originally grown in China. The first type was called “xiao suan” in Chinese, meaning small garlic, therefore the new variety was named “da suan”, meaning big garlic.
With a higher yield, a bigger head and a better taste than the allium bakeri, Hu garlic made a quick expansion, as the production area grew from Yanzhou and reached Cangshan. “Li Xun, while acting as governor of Yanzhou Prefecture, shared all the wheat and Hu garlic harvested from his plantation with his subordinates”, recorded The History of the Dong Han.
The Cangshan garlic has a paper-thin white skin and a large bulb, holding between 4 and 6 cloves. The flesh is jade white, sticky and hot. It is described as fragrant, spicy, sticky and delicious and locals believe it has health benefits, especially for the stomach.
Cangshan Garlic enjoys a high reputation at home and abroad, while the Compendium of Materia Medica notes it is “indispensable for people in north China when they eat meat and noodles”. Cangshan residents generally eat it raw in their meals and during harvest season garlic sprouts, garlic seedlings and fresh garlic become the main ingredients in any household.
The area in which the Cangshan garlic is produced naturally offers favourable conditions for growing the plant. The Lanling County is located in the warm, temperate, semi-humid area of the East China monsoon region. With a notable continental monsoon climate, the county has four distinct seasons including the hot rainy season during which the garlic thrives.
The soil in the region has a high content of organic matter, as well as high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which naturally fertilise the crops. Moreover, the wells in the area mostly contain alkalescent water, further benefitting the plant.
The favourable ecological environment, along with natural selection and artificial cultivation have led to the creation of the Cangsham Garlic variety, which is specific to Lanling County. In May 1999, the county was officially named the Home of Garlic in China, while the China-EU Agreement on Geographical Indications (GIs), officially entered into force on 1 March 2021, also recognises the variety’s uniqueness. This is China’s first bilateral, comprehensive and high-level agreement on the protection of GIs and has had an important and practical outcome in the development of the China-EU economic and trade relations in recent years.
The garlic production base now covers an area of 24,000 hectares, with an annual output of 320,000 tonnes. For over 20 years Cangshan garlic has been exported to Japan, South Korea, North America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Besides raw, the garlic is also processed into dried garlic, garlic powder, garlic oil, sweetened garlic, canned garlic and even garlic beverages, among other foods and seasonings.