Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Welsh leeks – supposed history

The leek (Allium porrum) and the more decorative and easily worn daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are both symbols of Wales, being worn on St David’s Day (1 March) and other appropriate occasions.  Postcards produced early in the twentieth century suggest that the leek was then the predominant emblem, with daffodils being rarely, if ever, used.  However, at present the daffodil is predominant and leeks (almost always artificial) are rarely worn.

In her Weeds & Wild Flowers (1858), Lady Wilkinson wrote:

‘I will not presume to enter a controversy … by suggesting that … it may have become amalgamated into Druidic theology with a degree of sanctity, according to Latin writers, similar to that which rendered the leek so sacred a symbol amongst the ancient Egyptians, that to swear by these plants was considered equivalent to swearing by one of their gods, but will pass on to tell how Owen, otherwise a good antiquary, actually derives it from a prevalent Welsh custom, called Cymhortha, by which neighbours assemble, at seed-time, or harvest, to assist each other in competing the labour of the day; at which gathering each man contributes, by a sort of complimentary usage, a leek to the broth, which forms the dinner on the occasion; and as these leeks, he assures us, might naturally be carried in the band of the hat, he supposes the nation assumed them as a badge! …                                           King James in his Royal Apothegms says, that it was chosen to commemorate the lamented Black Prince; but what connection subsisted between that gallant youth and the ill-scented plant, he does not inform us.  Nor do the old Welsh records approach much nearer the truth.  Their general testimony appears to be in favour of some battle, in which the Welsh were victorious, having been been fought in a garden of leeks, from which each man gathered and wore one, to enable his countrymen to distinguish him from his enemy; to whom they had pre-determined to grant no quarter.  This battle is variously stated to have occurred under the leadership of St David at the close of the fifth century, or commencement of the sixth century; or unde Cadwalladr, in the year 633, when he defeated the Saxons near Hethfield, or Hatfield, in Yorkshire.  It is needless to say the idea is imaginary.’

It is claimed that in the fourteenth century Welsh archers wore green and white, the colours of leeks, uniforms.

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora, to be published in April 2019.

Images: main, centre of wreath on the Guards’ Memorial, St James’s Park, Westminster, London, February 2019; upper inset, leeks cultivated at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff, March 2017; lower inset, postcard, posted Barmouth, Merionethshire, 20 July 1908.

Updated 28 December 2021.