by Health Coach Deborah Cox FMCA, NBHWC
“poor man’s asparagus”
Throughout history leeks have been thought of as anything from an upscale to a lowly vegetable. They may be one of the oldest vegetables cultivated by man. They are a member of the Allium family related to onions, yet having a more herbal, subtle, sweet flavor than the onion. Their origin is considered to be Central Asia and the Mediterranean, including areas of Egypt where archaeological digs have evidence that they were part of the Egyptian diet for at least the last 4000 years. The Bible mentions leeks, in Numbers 11:5, as one of the foods the Israelites remembered they ate in Egypt as they wandered in the desert. Leeks would later be consumed as part of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in this manner;
Taste a little of the Karatei and say:
“May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers and mothers, that our enemies and all those who seek our harm be cut off.”
(The Aramaic word for leek, karatei, sounds like the Hebrew word karet (cutting off/to be cut off).)
The Roman emperor Nero (37-68 AD) had his own take on leeks. He ate large quantities of them believing they would improve his singing voice. He also acquired the nickname Porophagus (leek eater). The only historical corroboration to Nero’s belief is that Aristotle attributed the clear voice of the partridge to its diet consisting of leeks.
The leek made its way to the United Kingdom sometime before the 6th century AD. The exact route is unclear; whether it was by Phoenician traders, Romans, or Egyptians, it made its way north. According to legends, the leek saved Wales during the Battle of Heathfield in 633 AD. Now the battle was not fought with leeks as weapons, although that does bring a comical sight to mind! A Celtic monk, David, convinced the Welsh army, led by King Cadwallader, to put leeks in their helmets to distinguish themselves from the enemy Saxon army. The Welsh won the battle and David became St. David, or Dewi Sant in Wales. To this day on St. David’s Day the Welsh still proudly wear leeks in their lapels, and the leek has become the national emblem of Wales.
Other ancient uses of Leeks (most likely from Druid sacred knowledge):
A few more modern tidbits about leeks:
Leeks are not particularly popular in the US, possibly because they require a little more prep work than onions, and they are not widely grown.
Leeks, Allium porrum or A. ampeloprasum var. porrum, are a true perennial, referred to as a biennial, and usually grown as an annual; now that that’s out of the way let’s grow them.
Leeks are relatively easy to grow in most areas of the US. They prefer cooler climates in full sun, with ideal growing temperatures from 55-75°F. I have grown them with great success here in the high desert of Nevada where daytime temps can go above 100°F. Due to their long growing season (75-150 days), patience will be a virtue when growing them. They like nutrient-dense, well-drained soil; adding a side-dressing of compost or a balanced organic fertilizer about mid-point in their growth will give them an added boost. Blanching your leeks will help produce a more succulent white stem. Blanching in this setting means to keep them from the sun, so that part of the plant does not produce chlorophyll and turn green. This is done by mounding dirt up around the white part of the leek as it grows, usually beginning this process when the leeks are about 1 inch in diameter.
Leeks can be grown from either seeds or transplants. I have had great success growing Lancelot Leek transplants from Dixondale Farms(https://www.dixondalefarms.com/category/lancelot_leeks). To plant transplants, place each one in hole approximately 6 inches deep and wider than the transplant, approximately 6 inches apart, so the youngest leaf sticks out above the surface of the soil. Turn on the sprinkler to allow the soil to settle around the roots at the bottom of the hole, also providing natural blanching for the lower stem, continue the blanching process as described above as the leeks grow. You can also start seeds by direct sowing in your garden if your growing season is long enough or by starting seeds inside up to 12 weeks before your last frost. Germination takes 8 days to 2 weeks so be patient with them; a heated seedling mat will help if your house is consistently cooler than 70°F. When they reach 2 inches tall, they should be transplanted into individual small pots, and hardened off for about a week until they reach 5-6 inches tall before planting in your garden.
Watch for slugs if they are a problem in your area. Crushed eggshells can help ward them off. Too much rain can cause leeks to rot in the ground. Remove any damaged plants and/or harvest them early. Leek rust, caused by a fungus, Puccinia porri (syn. Puccinia allii), can ruin your whole crop if not discovered and dealt with. It can also infect other allium crops. You will notice orange pustules on the leaves, remove these leaves and burn them or throw them in the trash before the spores inside have a chance to spread to other plants. The best maintenance practices to help ensure a healthy leek crop are good companion planting and crop rotation. The best companion for Leeks is carrots, as they help deter carrot pests. The worst companions are legumes, beans, and peas, as they are heavy feeders and will leave your leeks, which have a longer growing cycle, starving for nutrients.
There is no hard and fast rule for harvesting leeks…harvest them when you think they are large enough. Small leeks may be used like scallions. Harvest them as you need them as they store the best in the ground up until it freezes hard. Here are several ideas on storing leeks:
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