Leeks and Daffodils are both national emblems of Wales, and March 1st is the day when the patron saint of Wales is remembered – St David’s Day, or Dydd Dewi Sant.
Leeks (Allium porrum) are part of the onion (Allium) family; although they look different to ‘ordinary’ onions and garlic, as the bulb is much less developed. In a leek, the stalk is the edible part; both white and green parts are edible but the white section of the stalk has a milder, pleasanter taste.
The leek we eat today is most probably a descendant of the wild leek, Allium ampeloprasum, which is native to the British Isles and most of Europe including the Mediterranean.
The earliest records of leek cultivation date from more than 3000 BC and are Egyptian. Even in the first century BC, the famous Roman gardener, Pliny, thought that the best leeks still came from Egypt.
Leeks are generally grown from seed, planted in March time, in a seed bed or in individual modules. Inner tubes of toilet rolls and paper towels are quite useful for this, as, if you plant the seed about halfway done, you can easily encourage a straight stem as the seedling grows. It also helps with keeping the stem that pale creamy white; blanching, as it’s known. The longer the white part of a leek stem, the sweeter the overall taste, is the general idea.
Once planted in a deep hole and earthed around (to keep that pale stem) leeks will stand in the ground until mature and until you’re ready to harvest them; from late October through to late March of the following year as they are frost hardy; ‘Toledo’ is one of the later varieties. A useful winter crop, they prefer a slightly damper climate than onions; which could be why they do well in Wales.
Too much damp can lead to rust, however, so leave enough room between the plants for air to circulate.
If you have soil very prone to being wet in the winter, you may find you have a better crop of leeks by growing them in slightly raised beds, so that you can ensure better soil drainage.
Although I have grown three leeks in the same hole, for a smaller stemmed crop that is good in salads and stir fries, that was in the south east of England. When in Wales, I wanted the varieties that would stand the winter. I’d be interested to know other people’s experiences, so do drop me an email.
But how did leeks become one of the national emblems of Wales? One of the legends brings in St David himself. On the eve of a battle against the Saxons in the late fifth century, Dewi Sant (Saint David) advised the Welsh to wear leeks in their caps and helmets so they could distinguish friend from foe during the battle.
Shakespeare had a similar theme in his play Henry V, where the Welsh again wore leeks in their caps at the Battle of Agincourt. Many of the best archers, who helped win the battle, were Welsh.
One of the humorous scenes in the play involves the Welsh Captain Llewelyn (himself named after a famous Welsh Prince and defeater of the English) Captain Gower and Pistol. This is where Llewelyn has been wearing a leek in his bonnet on St David’s Day and forces Pistol to eat the raw leek for mocking the tradition.
So whether you eat your leeks raw on St David’s day or cook them in a creamy thyme sauce (this latter is tastier, I think) they are a useful addition to the winter vegetable garden.