Down-to-earth leek vanquishes evil spirits

Nutrious leeks have magic powers in March.
Nutrious leeks have magic powers in March.

Written by Heather Elvidge

If you’re feeling under the weather it’s time to eat some leeks. They were thought to have miraculous powers during March, purging the blood and driving away evil spirits.

Invalids in Wales used to be given leek stew, which makes sense because the vegetable is high in iron.

On St David’s Day, March 1, it’s leeks versus daffodils for the role of Wales’ national emblem. The saint, a strict vegetarian, was said to favour the down-to-earth leek.

Bishop David established his monastery in the sixth century at the place in Pembrokeshire that’s now called St David’s. Unusually for the time his monks spurned wine or beer in favour of water, leading an austere life of work and study fuelled only by bread and vegetables.

People called David the Waterman; a spring would appear wherever he stuck his staff in the ground. Legend tells how he chose the leek as the emblem of Wales, to distinguish Welsh warriors in a battle against the Saxons. However, it seems that Saxons were rather keen on leeks too. Their word for vegetable patch was leactun – leek enclosure.

Welsh armies resisted Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Anglo Normans with varying degrees of success; their last Prince was killed in 1282, having refused homage to Edward I of England. Two centuries later the Tudors – descended from the Princes of Gwynedd – came to the English throne. Laws discriminating against Welshmen were relaxed and leeks were worn with pride on London’s streets. Londoners responded by hanging out scarecrows with leeks pinned to their heads.

Today the daffodil has the upper hand, thanks to Lloyd George who championed it for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911. The daffy – linked with David’s mother, St Non – is Wales’ 
national flower. However, the leek is still worn by Welsh regiments, evoking that ancient fighting spirit.

Little pests

Pet-owners, did you stop flea treatment for the winter? Then beware, because Old Nick shakes a bag of fleas at our doors on the first day of March. It’s true; with lighter days and milder weather, fleas begin to stir.

In the days before insecticides, cleansing plants were deployed in the battle against pests. Wormwood, whose silvery-grey leaves were a common sight in cottage gardens, was particularly useful. Its fragrant stems were strewn on floors or placed among clothes and bedding, and an infusion of wormwood leaves was sprayed on plants to kill greenfly.

Despite its bitterness, wormwood tea was taken as a tonic, although it was valued most for its ability to kill intestinal worms.

Today we know that wormwood, or artemisia absinthium, contains anti-inflammatory and insecticidal substances. Its essential oil is safe in small amounts, yet highly toxic when taken in large quantities. It’s probably best not to use it to create, say, a liqueur.

Yet that’s just what happened in 19th-century France. So many were harmed by absinthe addiction that in the early 1900s the notorious green drink was banned. Now if only they’d made that liqueur from leeks...