(Species: Allium porrum - Family: Amaryllidaceae)
Leek and its origins
Leeks were used in ancient times, particularly in Egypt and the Middle East, going back probably as far as 4,000 years ago. The wild variety that grew back then were shorter and thinner than the ones we see today with their long, very thick stems. The leek is said to have been the favourite vegetable of the tyrannical Roman emperor Nero.
The leek is a hardy, robust, flavourful vegetable but its flavour is diminished if it is allowed to grow too large. It is a member of the onion family with a similar but milder and more subtle flavour.
It has thick green leaves growing from a white 'stem', which is actually the bottom part of the plant where the leaves are tightly rolled together. The plants are tall, with leaves up to 30cm long and the stem is up to about 12cm in diameter. There are also, 'mini' varieties which are decorative as well as useful if space is limited.
Leek seeds can be sown throughout late winter and early spring, planted out in late spring and early summer, and harvested from summer through to the end of the year.
How to plant Leek
Leeks are not difficult to grow but they take up soil space for six months or more, although 'mini' leek varieties are speedier from seed to harvest and take up less space.
They need a sunny, sheltered site to thrive and a rich, deeply dug soil. Seeds can be sown in a container or in the ground for later transplanting, or alternatively small young plants can be bought to be planted out.
Leek seeds can be sown in late winter in a seed tray filled with compost, and placed on a warm windowsill. Seedlings are then thinned to 5cm apart and can go on growing indoors, before being hardened off gradually. When the young plants are the thickness of a pencil, they can be planted out and to ensure that this plant’s stems thicken, place each one 15cm apart. Alternatively, sow seeds directly into the soil in spring or early summer.
The soil needs to broken down finely first, before planting the seeds about 1cm deep. The young plants will still need to be transplanted so there is room for their stems to thicken. Before transplanting, water the plants very well to enable easy lifting from the ground with the aid of a garden fork.
Plant out in holes about 15cm deep and 5cm in diameter, with a spacing of 15cm between each plant. Instead of filling the hole around the leek with soil, fill with water. As the plant grows, a long, white stem develops. To produce even longer, whiter stems, the plants can be 'earthed', which involves hoeing around the plant and drawing up the soil around the stem to cover its base, as the plant grows. The plants must be watered thoroughly during periods of dry weather, but care should be taken not to overwater.
Leeks can be left to stand for months, and are easy to harvest. They can be pulled from the ground when the stems are a good size, and the top leaves and the roots trimmed off in readiness for culinary use.
They are relatively free of disease, although if the weather is damp, leek rust on the leaves - orange-yellow spots - may occur. In this event, any affected leeks should have the rusted leaves removed and destroyed.
Did you know: Leek facts
The leek has long been a national emblem of Wales. In his play Henry V, William Shakespeare refers to it being worn to identify a person as Welsh.
Legend has it that the 7th century Welsh king Cadwaladr got his troops to wear them on their helmets when they were fighting a battle against the Saxons in a field of leeks. Today, a leek emblem is still worn on the caps of the Welsh guards, a regiment of the British army.