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Originating in central Asia, garlic is one of the world’s oldest crops. It belongs to the family of Liliaceae and its fruit is made up of several cloves in one single bulb. The strong, penetrating smell is its best-known characteristic, which also makes it unpopular with many. For this reason, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare doesn’t recommend it to the actors who need to address “sweet words” to the audience from the stage (IV,2,ll.43/44).

Since ancient times garlic has been appreciated both as food, thanks to its typical flavour, and as a medicinal plant. With regard to this, the oldest reference is present in some Sanskrit documents, even though the very first certain citation appears in the Codex Ebers (1550 b.C.), a 20-metre long Egyptian papyrus containing hundreds of therapeutic formulas. Garlic is present in about twenty of these formulas as an effective remedy against headache, insect bites and as a painkiller.

The achievements of Egyptian medicine, deprived of their magical formulas and rituals, were later adopted by the Greeks. Hippocrates, the greatest physician of ancient times, who based his theories on the observation of facts, recommends garlic in several instances for its medicinal properties, thus endorsing tradition and popular experience.

Pliny the Old, in 1st century AD Rome, reports its various therapeutic uses in detail in his Historia Naturalis and it is no mystery that Roman legionnaires would use garlic as an anthelmintic and to fight several infectious diseases.

Another important reference is found in the Herbal of Urbino, a manuscript of the 16th century which is a precious collection of recipes mixing popular medicine and empirical knowledge on the therapeutic properties of plants.

However, it is not until the 19th century that a true scientific basis is recognised to garlic and its properties. In 1858 Pasteur identifies and describes the antibiotic properties of garlic. In the early 20th century, then, Albert Schweitzer uses it in Africa as the sole remedy against dysentery. Later its use is extended to fight typhus, diphtheria, tuberculosis and even cholera epidemics.

Epidemiological studies recently conducted in China (where the use of garlic dates back to at least 3000 years ago) show significantly lower risk of gastric cancer among the inhabitants of the Shandong province, who are habitual users of garlic and other Liliaceae.

In synthesis, thanks to its active ingredients (Allicin and derivatives)  this plant has antibacterial, antiseptic, mucolytic, hypotensive properties and is an effective regulator of the cardiovascular system.
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