The leek, national emblem of Wales

Thursday 28 February 2013, 11:03

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Scotland has the thistle, England a rose, Ireland the shamrock. Wales? The Welsh have two national emblems, not counting the blood-red dragon - the leek and the daffodil. The daffodil is a relatively new addendum but the leek has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Harry Secombe posing with a leek for a sketch in The Goon Show, 1972 Harry Secombe posing with a leek for a sketch in The Goon Show, 1972

The origins of the leek as a symbol or an emblem of Wales and all things Welsh are now lost in time but it is highly likely that they go back to the days of the druids, the priests and holy men who controlled society in the centuries before the Romans came to Britain.

In those pagan times people worshipped trees, flowers and plants and saw in them magical properties. The leek was revered as something that could not only help cure colds and alleviate the pains of childbirth, it could also be used to keep away evil spirits and to foretell the future.

One common belief was that a young girl who put leeks beneath her pillow at night would see the face of her future husband in her dreams. The smell would surely be guaranteed to give her bad dreams but it was a commonly held belief. And not only that - leeks tasted very good in cawl.

There is a legend that says King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd once ordered his men to put leeks on their helmets to identify themselves in a battle against the Saxons - which, apparently, took place in a field full of leeks. But as the same story is also credited to St David it is highly likely that this tale is just an interesting and attractive story that probably came from the flowing pen of the writer Michael Drayton.

We do know that the soldiers of Edward I adopted the green and white colours of the leek for their uniform during the Hundred Years War. Almost certainly, the much feared Welsh archers were wearing the colours during the Battle of Crecy.

In 1537 members of the household guard presented leeks to Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, on St David's Day and there are records of payments for leeks in the accounts books of several Tudor kings. These were to be worn by the guards on 1 March.

Shakespeare, of course, refers to the wearing of leeks in his play Henry V. The young King tells the Welsh warrior Fluellen that he is wearing a leek because "I am Welsh, good countryman."

By the 17th and 18th centuries it was common practice for the king and members of his court to wear leeks on St David's Day. The smell from these pungent vegetables (from the same family as onions and garlic) must have been horrible but since people, of both high and low rank, did not wash very much in those days it did not cause undue comment.

Leek section and root base More than just an emblem, the leek can be used in a range of dishes

These days the humble leek can be seen on £1 coins and, perhaps most notably, in the cap badge of members of the Welsh Guards. Increasingly, they are used in cookery - and not just in the tasty lamb stew that we know as cawl.

Back in the 17th century, however, with the king and all members of his court sporting leeks every St David's Day, it is easy to see how the practice became common among ordinary folk. They simply "aped their betters", as the man once said.

The wearing of daffodils, while certainly a lot less smelly, did not become popular until the 19th century.

Interestingly, the Welsh for daffodil is "Cenhinen Bedr" which means St Peter's Leek - so perhaps there is more of a connection between the vegetable and the flower than we ever thought possible. Whatever the connection, by the end of the century daffodils were challenging leeks to the place of honour on the lapels of all good Welshmen on St David's Day.

In 1911 David Lloyd George, a firm supporter of the daffodil over the leek, ensured that the flower was used in the investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. The leek played no part in the ceremony whatsoever.

In 1916, however, there was considerable debate - leek or daffodil - and a report of that year found in favour of the leek. Since that time both have been used, according to personal choice and it hardly matters which one has preference.

Either way, it is good to know that the humble leek, the favourite vegetable of the Emperor Nero, still appears every 1 March. Long may it continue to do so.

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