The na­ture of things

Leeks

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country Notebook - Edited by Vic­to­ria Marston

UN­LIKE the rose, eas­ily worn by an English­man on St Ge­orge’s Day or the sham­rock by the Ir­ish­man on St Pa­trick’s, the leek is surely a chal­lenge for the pa­tri­otic Welsh­man want­ing to be truly tra­di­tional on St David’s Day (March 1). Avail­abil­ity isn’t the prob­lem, but, by now, they’re big, rangy beasts with blue-green, floppy-sword leaves flail­ing about in winter’s winds, flick­ing dirt on each other like school­boys in a snow­ball fight. Then there’s the onion-gar­lic aroma, com­mon to its tribe. A won­der­ful veg­etable, cer­tainly, but tricky to carry off in a but­ton­hole.

How­ever, leg­end tells us that the wear­ing of leeks goes back at least to the 7th cen­tury and the Welsh troops who iden­ti­fied them­selves via leeks on their hel­mets dur­ing bat­tle with the An­glo-sax­ons. In Shake­speare’s Henry V, at Agin­court, the of­fi­cer Fluellen re­minds Henry of the sol­diers ‘wear­ing leeks in their Mon­mouth caps’. Henry con­firms that he does, too, on the saint’s day: ‘For I am Welsh, you know, good coun­try­man.’

A leek de­sign was among the em­blems em­broi­dered onto the Corona­tion dress of El­iz­a­beth II, de­spite the cou­turier Hart­nell’s doubts of their vis­ual ap­peal. Per­haps he hadn’t seen leeks in flower: the in­flo­res­cence of Al­lium am­pelo­pra­sum is a glo­ri­ous globe of tiny star­bursts that would fit just as well in the gar­den bor­der as the veg­etable patch.

Illustration by Bill Dono­hoe

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