Leek

(Allium porrum) An important vegetable in ancient times. The OE leac-tun meant a kitchen garden, implying that leeks were in the majority. Similarly, a leac-ward, literally leek keeper, meant a gardener. The Hebrew word for leek literally means "herb", implying it was the herb par excellence (Moldenke). But leeks have always been looked down upon, in spite of an Irish legend that they were created by Saint Patrick (Swahn). Certainly in the Orient it has always been seen as the food of the poor (that is why it is a symbol of humility (Moldenke). Nero, though, was apparently fond of them, and so they were raised to respectability, if only temporarily, for after his death he was referred to as derisively as Porrophagus, leek-eater (Moldenke). The same contempt is shown in English relations with the Welsh on the subject. Everyone knows that the leek is the national emblem of Wales, but the stories that explain its adoption are mainly from the English point of view, and they are usually scurrilous (see Howells for some examples), mostly to do with a recognition emblem. On the Welsh side, the explanations vary from the very simplistic (St David ate leeks (Hadfield)) to other recognition signals; as for instance the victory of King Cadwallader over the Saxons in AD 640, when St David made the Britons wear leeks in their caps for purposes of identification (Friend).

The leek is a lucky plant to grow in the garden, and when worn it was said to scare away both evil spirits and human enemies. If a fighter wore a leek, it would make him victorious without a wound (Trevelyan), a belief that may well have something to do with the origin myths quoted, and which links this plant with its relative, garlic, for garlic is the greatest protector of them all. It is difficult to imagine the result of throwing leeks into the loving cup, but apparently that was done at Courts Leet in Glamorgan as late as 1850 (Trevelyan). But the Welsh were not completely in love with them, for it is said in old Welsh medical texts that "they produce fearful dreams" (Gerard).

Divinations were, so it is claimed, made with leeks, though the details are usually lacking, though one charm is recorded: the girl had to go out into the garden and uproot a leek with her teeth! Then it had to be put under her pillow, and her lover would appear to her in a dream (Stevens) (or in the flesh if the proper arrangements had been made). It is said that at Plouer, on the Cotes-du Nord, it was the custom to hang a leek from one of the joists of the kitchen ceiling before the fishing fleet set out. If the plant kept alive, this was regarded as a good omen, but if it dried up and died, then it could be taken as certain that a member of the family had died at sea (Anson).

Women who wanted children were told to eat leeks, and not only in Wales, though Evelyn noted that "the Welch, who eat them much, are observed to be very fruitful", and the medieval Welsh medical text known as the Physicians of Myddfai lists among the virtues of leeks that "it is good for women who desire children to eat [leeks]" Perhaps the reason for such claims lies in the Germanic peoples' belief that leeks contribute to "manly vigour" (Wimberley), clearly derived from their upright growth. A proverb from Normandy runs: Femme stérile/ Mangeant poireau/ Son ventre gros/ Devient fertile (Loux).

Folk medicine claimed many uses for them. In some places, the juice was mixed with cream, and used to cure chilblains (Dyer), and in Fifeshire poultices of chopped leeks were often used for whitlows (Rorie). Ulcers were also said to benefit by such a poultice (Physicians of Myddfai). Boils too could be "matured" in the same way. Piles were treated with leeks, too ("take the roots of leek and stamp and fry them with sheeps tallow, and as hot as he may suffer it, bind to the fundament oft ...") (T Hill).

Leek juice was often used for whooping cough in past times, or indeed any "old" cough. As Thomas Hill said, "leeke amendeth an old cough and the ulcers of the lungs". It was also used for deafness, sometimes forming part of quite complicated recipes. The Physicians of Myddfai, for example, conjoined the juice of leeks, goats' gall, and honey, mixed in three equal parts, and then put, warm, in the ears and nostrils. An early leechdom for an ear salve required the doctor to pound sinfull, which is a Sedum of some kind, latherwort (probably Soapwort), and leek. Put into a glass with vinegar, wring through a cloth, and drip into the ear (Cockayne). The juice was also recommended for headaches (T Hill), and a surprising early usage was as a wound herb. A Middle English medical treatise claimed that leeks with salt "helpes a wounde to close some" (I B Jones), and the Physicians of Myddfai included a prescription "to restrain bleeding from recent wounds". Nosebleeds were also dealt with by using leeks, but not in a way easily forecast. Lupton, in the mid-seventeenth century, ordered the patient to take nine or ten fresh leeks, and to put a thread through the midst of them, "but cut off the tops of the leaves, then hang them round the party's neck that bleeds, so that the leaves be upward to the nose, and the heads of them downwards ..."

There are still more ailments that were treated with leeks, one way or another. One is toothache (Henslow), and another for "the deliverance of a dead child" (Dawson). Andrew Boorde, in 1542, recommended them to "provoke a man to make water", but he went on "they make and increase evyll blode". The most astonishing caution comes from the Physicians of Myddfai, who warned that eating raw leeks occasions intoxication!

Lemna minor > DUCKWEED LEMON VERBENA

(Lippia citriodora) Best known for the oil, obtained by distillation of the leaves, for which it is cultivated in the south of France and in Algeria (Whittle & Cook). This oil is collected commercially for the perfume industry. But this plant can be used medicinally, too. The leaves, either fresh or dried, may be used in tisanes for reducing fevers, or as a sedative, and also for indigestion, for which it is widely employed (Macleod).

Lens esculenta > LENTIL LENT LILY

A common name for DAFFODIL, obviously related to its time of flowering. It has a number of variations -Lenty Lily, Lent Cups, Lents, even Lentils. One related name, Lentcocks, is interesting. One of the more barbarous of Shrovetide games was cock-throwing, or cock-squailing, as it was called in Dorset (Udal). A bird was tied to a stake, and sticks were thrown at him until he was killed. Lentcocks for daffodils would seem to be an allusion to this "game". Were the flowers decapitated when the real cock-throwing died out?

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