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Unlike the rose, thistle and shamrock, the leek
does not have the makings of striking iconography. It is a kind of
bulbless onion with only a thick stem and a bunch of leaves for an
artist to play with. The most promising things about it are the
contrasting colours of green and white and the broad, reflexed
leaves which looked well on the back of the one pound coin - though
one can imagine foreigners being puzzled by it.
The leek is associated with a saint: Saint David, Dewi Sant.
David was a holy man, a missionary and a founder of monasteries.
Apart from that he was a vegetarian. He lived on nothing but bread,
water, herbs (watercress has been suggested) and leeks. Despite
that, or perhaps because of it, he was a strong, tall man and lived
to a ripe old age. David was formally canonized 600 years after his
death in 1120, but long before that he was remembered as a man in
whom God’s power had worked wonders.
Why was Dewi Sant’s liking for leeks so significant? Perhaps one
reason is that the leek was rightly seen as a healthy – in old
parlance as a virtuous – plant. Quite extraordinary qualities were
claimed for it. It was the original health food, high in fibre,
good for purging the blood, keeping colds at bay, and for healing
wounds. The leek also acquired mystic virtues. For example, girls
who go to sleep on St David’s Day with a leek under their pillow
will see their future husband in their dreams. It is tempting to
assume that this applies only to Welsh girls. By way of its
virtues, which contrast meaningfully with the plant’s insignificant
appearance, the leek acquired a kind of vegetable sanctity. Like St
David, it worked miracles.
As for the alternative St David’s Day emblem, the daffodil, it
is simply a more convenient buttonhole. Unlike the leek it has no
depth of history or folklore behind it, and apparently entered the
liturgy of St David’s day as late as 1920. However, artists jumped
aboard the daffodil express because it is an easier symbol to work
with. Hence the postage stamps of George VI and our queen up to
1967 portrayed the daffodil, and not the leek, along with the
thistle, rose and shamrock. But the national colours of Wales are
leek-green and leek-white, not daffodil-yellow.
If leeks were indeed a staple food of Dark Age and prehistoric
Wales, where are their wild ancestors, the wild leeks? Their
supposed ancestor, Allium ampeloprasum is now classed as an
archaeophyte on the assumption that it was introduced to the island
of Britain as a crop-plant. Yet in Wales, where you might expect it
to be, it is virtually confined to two islands, Holyhead Island and
Flatholm. On the latter its pink, fuzzy tennis-ball heads are one
of the sights of the island, growing thickly around the lighthouse
and former army barracks, and showing that under the right
conditions the wild leek can persist and thrive. Are these leeks
descended from monastery gardens, or are they true natives? It is
unfortunate that there are no wild leeks growing near St David’s or
on the sites of his other monasteries. Like that other ancient
wilding, woad, the wild leek has all but vanished from the
Not that this matters a great deal. The emblems of the United
Kingdom are flowers of the mind, not of the landscape. Their power
comes from feeling, not from botanical science. The leek expresses
things about the Welsh which are clearly timeless. What are they
exactly? Frugality and practicality must be part of the leek’s
‘message’. So is the mystic element, the sense of a world beyond
immediate experience. The colours of the leek are satisfying,
whether you see in them sheep on grass, or snow on the green hills
or the Welsh archers at Agincourt. And perhaps most importantly the
leek symbolizes the ascetic life of a great patriotic saint, worthy
of emulation, who lies at the very heart and foundation of Welsh
life and culture. The power of the leek is something that is felt
by the heart, not the head; and only a Welshman can feel that.
Peter Marren has written fourteen books
about history and natural history.