Mystical power of the leek

St David's Cathedral, built on the site of his monastery in a damp Pembrokeshire valley
St David's Cathedral, built on the site of his monastery in a damp Pembrokeshire valley

Written by Heather Elvidge

March 1 is St David’s Day, when daffodils and leeks vie for the role of national emblem of Wales. A strict vegetarian, St David was said to favour the down-to-earth leek.

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

It’s thought that the Romans introduced the leek to Britain. By David’s time leeks were probably in his vegetable garden, and every other one in the country. The Saxons in the east called their veg patches “leactun”, leek enclosure.

Legend tells how David chose the leek as the ancient emblem of Wales, in order to distinguish Welsh warriors in their battles against the Saxons. If this were true, it would have been a spiritual choice; somehow, one cannot imagine the fighters in a Saxon shield-wall with a vegetable fixed to their helmets.

Leeks were believed to have miraculous powers during March — they purged the blood and drove away evil spirits. In an old Welsh custom, anyone too ill to finish their ploughing was given a bowl of leek stew to revive them. Not a bad idea, because the nutritious vegetable has a high iron content.

Lloyd George championed the wearing of daffodils in 1911 for the investiture of the Prince of Wales, and today the more decorative daff has the upper hand. But the leek is still worn with fierce pride, especially by Welsh soldiers.

Weather watch

The last week of February often brings stormy weather that spills over into March. Everyone knows that “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”, but the reverse is also true. Usually it’s one of the driest months, though March can spring surprises with cold snaps and frosts.

Times are tough for our farmers, after the prolonged deluge that spoilt crops, waterlogged land, prevented seed sowing and put up the price of animal feed. Good weather is vital this year if the land is to recover from the wet winter that followed 2012’s record-breaking wet summer.

Britain’s wealth came from agriculture for most of its history, and people looked to the wisdom of their forebears for clues to the peak growing months.

The old sayings agree that March should be dry and cold if we’re to have a decent summer. “A wet March makes a sad harvest” and “March damp and warm will do farmers much harm”, warn of poor conditions in July and August when the grain is ripening.

If you’re a keen gardener take note of this old saw: “A mist in March is a frost in May.” Don’t forget to count each misty day this month, and you’ll be ready to prevent May frosts from nipping tender shoots and fruit blossom.

Although March brings the spring equinox, it’s also the month of “many weathers”. So if it springs a few surprises, remember this: “Better to be bitten by a snake, than to feel the sun in March.”