Today is March 1st, also known as St. David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. It is said that David (“Dewi” in Welsh) lived in the 6th century and only drank water, sometimes immersed himself in icy water while reciting scripture, and made his diet mainly of leeks. I have my own St. David, and although he’s not Welsh, his birthday is in March, and he happens to love all members of the allium family: onions, garlic, shallots, chives, garlic chives and leeks so I grow lots of them all. However, it is the leek that is the national emblem of Wales. When the Saxons invaded Britain in 640 (some say 633) the Welsh tucked wild leeks from a field near the battlefield into their hats and tunics to distinguish friend from foe. After the victory, it became a custom to wear a leek on St. David’s Day, March 1st. Some say the Welsh also wore leeks when fighting with Henry V against the French. Apparently, the Welsh are fond of wearing leeks because the tradition still remains in some parts of the country, and the Welsh Regiment of Foot Guards proudly wear the leek symbol as their regimental badge. There is some controversy about the story, for a few scholars insist that the early historians were actually describing daffodils rather than leeks. To be even more confusing, the Welsh name for daffodil is Cenin Pedr, or St. Peter’s Leek. St. Peter, St. David. All I can say, is if you’ve ever seen a Welsh road sign, it’s all confusing.
An English poet explained the association with St. David and leeks in “Polyolbion” with these words: (St. David)..”did so truly fast, As he did only drink what crystal Hodney yeilds, And fed upon the leeks he gathered in the fields. In memory of whom, in each revolving year, the Welshmen on this day, that sacred herb do wear.”
Shakespeare poked fun at the Welsh and their love of leeks in “Henry V” with a scene filled with phallic, leek based verbage aimed at the Welshman Fluellen. Some mystery lovers claim that Agatha Christie was making a joke when she named her petite, dandified Belgian detective Hercule Poirot after a strong, large member of the allium family (poirot=poireau=leek!)
Leeks (Allium porrum or Allium Ampeloprasum var. porrum) earned their common name from the Saxon word “leac” for “spear.” They are one of the earliest agricultural crops, cultivated in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. By A.D. 800, Charlemagne included leeks in his “must grow” for his empire and they were grown by monks in England during the Middle Ages. Choctaw Indians grew leeks before 1775 and an early American seed catalog listed three varieties in 1778. They are often grown as companions to protect other crops from invasive insects.
While they are very slow to grow from seed, they are worth the effort. They have a mild onion flavor and need a long growing season, so start the seeds early in order to get the 100 days required. I plant seeds in March, and grow them on until they are pencil thick seedlings. Those go into a deep trench of rich, well-drained soil, or individual dibbled holes. Gradually fill in the trench or hole with good soil as the leek grows taller. Adequate moisture is essential throughout the growing season, and they love cool temperatures so those of you in very hot areas may find growing them more difficult. There are many different varieties available, but the only truly great success I’ve had is with French Baby Leek “Primor.” For a baby, I think it gets pretty darn big!
Leeks are loved by chefs and gourmets everywhere, grilled, stuffed, braised, baked, friend, and especially in Leek & Potato soup, often called “Cock-a-leekie” or a fancier form, vichyssoise. They are often used in sauces and quiche as they blend especially well with cheeses. Leeks contain half the carbs of onions, so they are lower in calories and can generally be substituted for onions in most recipes. They are high in vitamins (A, C, and E) and are also high in iron and fiber.
The leek was also used as a prophecy: if a girl walked backwards into a garden at Halloween and placed a knife among the leeks, she would see a vision of her future husband in the shine of the blade. The Emperor Nero ate Leeks to improve his speaking and singing voice, earning the unflattering name of “porrophagus,” or leek-eater.
Leeks were boiled to use as a poultice for boils, and baked as an anticdote for eating too many mushrooms. The old adage: “Eat Leeks in March, and Ramsons in May, and all the year after Physicians may play” indicates that the health benefits were recognized even in olden days. Another old saying is “If they would eat leeks in March and mugworts in May, so many maidens wouldn’t go to the clay.” In many regions, the green leaves of leeks are steeped in boiling water, which is sprayed to repel flies. I like this idea, as generally only the white parts are eaten and the green leaves are discarded. Waste not, want not.
This morning, I ventured out to the potager to see how the carrots and leeks had fared inside the covered berry box. February had some brutally cold temps for days and nights in a row, and in prior years the carrots had become mush. Although the leeks don’t look as pretty as they did in late fall/early winter, they are still fine and solid and ready to use. Happily, so were the carrots. Surprisingly, a few smaller leeks in another bed, left entirely unprotected are also fine! Oh, the resilience of plants!
Leeks are the birthday flower for February 9, and symbolizes liveliness. I’ve never let leeks go to seed, and I’d be hard-pressed to push them to flower for February 9th but maybe I’ll let one flower just so I can see it. Leeks are biennials, so it would take two growing seasons to produce a flower.
Happily, this March 1st is a sunny, but chilly 39 degrees F here in north central Indiana. Not as warm as yesterday, which was a very blustery, unusually warm 62 degrees, but no wind and pleasant to be outdoors. So, wherever you are, celebrate St. David’s Day…invite a leek to dinner…or wear it, if you’re Welsh!
(This is an updated revision of an article first posted on this blog March 1st, 2018)