Although Gilroy, Calif., might be known as the garlic growing capital of the U.S., there’s no need to travel that far in order to stock up: Purple Haze Garlic, located at 14414 2900 Road in Hotchkiss, Colo., has plenty to come.
Harvested in July, “The crop is ready by early September, after it’s been cured,” says owner Elsie Winne Edstrom, who was born in Tortola BVI and raised in Crested Butte, Colorado before she settled in Hotchkiss. “Customers can either stop in to buy some; print off and mail in an order form from our website; or actually pick their own during our yearly garlic camp.” Setting up tents or campers, aficionados of the plant (which is also known as the “stinking rose”) are free to help dig up, wash, sort and form the heads into braids in exchange for a bag full. They are also invited to stick around for the Garlic Harvest Party which follows and includes roasted garlic, garlic soup, garlic chicken and shrimp, garlic hummus ... and even, during Cocktail hour, garlic Martinis. “As of the last couple of years, we’ve been hiring extra people, as well, to help with the harvest,” adds her husband, Sven. “It speeds up the process and actually saves on costs.”
Usually planted in November, individual cloves are pushed into the ground with the root end down, developing root systems during the winter before sprouting in the spring. “We will break apart each head first, which has seven to eight cloves, and then separate each according to size — large, medium and small — and plant them accordingly,” explains Sven. (A Colorado native who is originally from Gunnison, he laughed when asked about his unusual name, saying, “My mom got it out of a Swedish dictionary. There were no other family names that she felt like passing on.”) He continued, “The neat thing about garlic is that even when accidentally planted upside down, they’ll more often than not right themselves, although the necks tend to come out crooked.” And aside from a little fertilizer from the dairy down the road, as well as some from a man known as Dr. Fish, it doesn’t take any particularly special soil to grow it. “We use from one-half to one-third of an acre for ours,” and as a bonus, “the plants (which just sprouted in late March and currently stand about 6-inches tall) don’t take a whole lot of water.”
According to their website, Purple Haze is an “heirloom, hard-neck, Rocambole that has been grown on Redlands Mesa, in rural Western Colorado at the base of the Rocky Mountains, since the 1930s. (Rocambole is a variety that is typically purple in color and produces a scape, or flower, which creates a double loop as it grows before straightening out and producing bulbets, or small garlic seeds.) The big, easy-to-peel cloves make it a favorite in the kitchen since its spicy flavor adds a zing to favorite dishes” making it easily distinguishable from such conventionally-grown brands as the Georgia Crystal and Brown Tempest. For Sven, getting started in the business in 2004 was a great decision since he simply “loves garlic. We were looking for something different and this is an easy crop to grow.”
Once referred to as “Archie’s Garlic,” Purple Haze got its start in Colorado in the 1930s by late gardener Archie Ware, who brought the plant to this area and used to generously share the bounty. In the 1980s, his neighbors, commercial growers Mark Welsh and Nancy Horn tried, but failed, to learn the original name, settling instead on “Purple Haze” during the harvest of ’89. Surrounded by the rich smell of over 1,000 pounds of garlic, and fascinated by the beauty of the color purple, a friend who was helping them stood up, looked around, and declared “I feel like I’m in a purple haze.” It stuck, and Elsie and Sven kept it when they bought the business after Mark and Nancy — longtime friends of the family — decided it was time to move on.
“They helped us get going by sharing all they’d learned,” he says. Now raised just a mile from where it was originally grown, Purple Haze has attracted an increasing number of fans who drive long distances to buy entire braids when they are in season. Braids are created by hand shortly after the garlic is harvested, typically on the same day (before it starts drying up or spouting). One braid, which contains 15 to 20 heads, can be stored in a cool, dry area without going to seed for about a year. Thanks in part to the wonderful flavor of their product as well as the promise to “never use chemicals or synthetic fertilizers” this small, family-run operation, which includes daughters Olivia and Pilar, is flourishing. Check them out the next time you take a trip to Hotchkiss ... just follow your nose. ❖