The Ancient roots of the Leek

Wearing of the Leek?

One of the traditional ways that Welsh people celebrate their national pride on St. David’s Day is by wearing a leek. There are two intriguing tales from Welsh lore about this custom, one taking us all the way back to the 6th century.


A badge

The first story goes that soldiers of the ancient British king, Cadwaladyr, were about to fight their traditional enemy, the Saxons. Dewi Sant (St. David) advised the Welsh to wear a leek in order to recognize their fellow countrymen during the battle. Many have doubted this tale, as St. David and his followers lead a quiet monastic life, far away from such battle scenes; also, this legend wasn’t recorded until the 17th century.

A field of green

Another legend recounts the tale of brave Welsh archers who helped Edward the Black (the first English Prince of Wales) defeat the French in 1346. Because the archers fought in a field of leeks, this symbol became a reminder of their bravery and loyalty, and the Welsh began to wear a leek in their caps every St. David’s Day.

Ancient roots

It is very likely that the Welsh association with the leek predates St. David by hundreds and possibly thousands of years, to a pre-Christian time when Celtic people lived close to the land and had a deep affinity with trees, plants and other such aspects of Mother Nature. The leek may have had a special status with the Celtic tribes in the area we now know as Wales, although this is speculation.

One scenario is that the druids – who were priests, doctors, poets, teachers, minstrels, and human archives of ancient wisdom – shared and used their knowledge of the healing properties of the leek. Such qualities were alluded to in ancient holy books such as the Bible and the Torah, and leeks were depicted on ancient Egyptian wall carvings and drawings. They were even cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia.

The leek, with its reputation as a medicine to cure a variety of illnesses, would have been highly valued before the era of St. David. It was regarded as a cure for the common cold, alleviated the pains of childbirth and would later be used as a tasty, healthy ingredient in cawl, the traditional Welsh broth. It offered protection against wounds in battle and was supposed to help one keep away evil spirits. One of its benefits was to aid in foretelling the future; young maidens were to place a leek under their pillow at night to see the features of their future husbands.

The proud leek

So when you see this humble plant worn as a proud symbol of Welsh heritage, or see it as an emblem in a coin, flag or banner, you can appreciate its “Celtic connection” to an ancient past.

Researched and written by Kathi Hennesey, owner of Triskelt shops

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