The nature of things
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.