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The nodding yellow heads of spring-flowering daffodils are now our most recognisable symbol of St David’s Day; indeed, they’re a symbol of Wales itself. However, daffodils are relative newcomers to this scene, dating only to the 19th century as an emblem for the country. The Leek, however, has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself, who is thought to have died in the year 589.

The History of the Wild Leek in Wales

Legend describes how Welsh soldiers were ordered to identify themselves by wearing a Leek on their helmet, as they fought the Saxons in the north of England and the Midlands, under the command of King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd.

As with all such oral histories so long and so widely told, there are many different variations of this legend; however, the long presence of the Leek across many centuries of Welsh history is undeniable.

Most of us now think of Leeks as the large, cultivated vegetable we see in supermarkets – not at all suitable for attaching to a helmet in battle! However their genus, Allium, also contains a number of species that are either native, or ancient introductions to Britain. These have a far lengthier heritage than the domesticated vegetable, and would have been growing in north Wales at the time of both King Cadawladr and St David.

One of these is Allium ampeloprasum var. ampleoprasum, a variety of the Wild Leek that still grows today in Anglesey. It is a large plant, growing up to 2m high, with a dense spherical flowerhead of pink-purple flowers. This would certainly have made a distinctive and plausible addition a soldier’s helmet. Could this be the real Leek of Welsh legend?


Has Wild Leek always been found in Wales?

Wild Leek isn’t actually native to Britain – but it’s one of the archaeophytes, meaning that it was introduced by humans long ago – perhaps by traders, hundreds of years before the time of St David. It’s likely that it would have been grown and valued by the people of north Wales for its nutritional and medical properties.

Wild Leek on Angelsey

Evidence for this can be found in The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375-1425). This is one of the most important books ever written in Welsh, and it is a compilation of mythology, poetry, and chronicles of the time. It includes contemporary medical texts, which name Leeks in many recipes for treatments and cures.

The regular appearance of Leeks in other, later texts also suggests that the plants were quite readily available to the people of Wales. They must have been much more common than they are today.

The Future of the Wild Leek

Sadly, Wild Leek is now considered at risk of extinction in Wales, with small populations remaining only on Anglesey, and on Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. However, a healthy population is held in cultivation by Plantlife Cymru’s Robbie Blackhall-Miles.

This will help to secure the long-term safety of this now rare species in Wales. Given its fascinating and long association with the communities of Wales, possibly even St David himself – this is surely to be celebrated- especially on St David’s Day.

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