Sandy’s Garden ... Daffodils and Leeks

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Welsh and Irish ex-patriots share, with ex-patriot Scots, a love of the customs of their home countries.

Or the home countries of their ancestors … a love which surfaces annually on the day on which their patron saint’s life is celebrated. This love of tradition often exceeds the celebrations in those lands whose patron saint’s day it is, as I saw not do long ago, when I spent St. Patrick’s Day in Key West in the company of more happily-inebriated, green-faced and green-haired paddies and colleens … several with green dogs … than I ever imagined existed in the entire state of Florida! I must add, however, that I suspect some of the mainly-young ‘Irish’ celebrants had no actual connection of any kind with the Emerald Isle.

I have not, however, spent St. David’s Day in the company of Welsh ex-patriots and must rely on what I have seen and read for accounts of their enthusiasm for all things Welsh on the festival of their patron saint, which is on March 1. The celebration of Welsh life and culture which this prompts is, I believe, more conspicuous in the United States and Canada than it is in Welsh Wales, although many people there will attend special church services, parades, choral recitals or Welsh literature readings; and many schools will hold celebrations often involving choirs. Many people will also pin a daffodil or leek to their clothes; and some, especially children, wear traditional costumes.

There is no general agreement as to how both the daffodil and the leek became the national emblems of Wales; indeed, there seems to be no consensus about which came first, the daffodil or the leek. My personal preference is for the daffodil, for wild daffodils were once one of the most common wildflowers in the Welsh countryside, although their numbers declined significantly during the nineteenth century. The most likely reason for this decline was a change in agricultural methods, with more intensive farming destroying many of the natural habitats of Narcissus pseudonarcissus to give the plant its proper botanical name. And, gentle reader, if you are wondering about the pseudonarcissus element of this name, given that ‘pseudo’ means ‘not genuine’, suggesting that Narcissus pseudonarcissus is not a genuine daffodil, you may be interested to learn that the name ‘daffodil’ probably came from the Latin asphodilus, the name of a group of Mediterranean plants which grow from bulbs and have strap-like leaves but whose flowers are nothing like what we understand as a daffodil. The British wild daffodil … which looks exactly what we expect a daffodil to look like … was regarded by medieval plantsmen as … and please pardon the French … the ‘bastard’ daffodil, not a proper daffodil at all; and this supposedly false daffodil got the name Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Simple!

So yes, I think the once-common-in-Wales wild daffodil was a natural choice as a national emblem. But how and why did the leek join the daffodil as an emblem for Wales, the Welsh national vegetable, if you will? Well … and this is pure surmise on my part … the Welsh for ‘daffodil’ is Cenhinen Pedr; and Cenhinen Pedr translates into English as ‘Peter’s leek’! So, although it is often said that the leek was used by the Welsh as a cap badge in battle to show friend from foe in battles of yesteryear … as when the Welsh fought the Saxon invaders during the seventh century or when Welsh archers fought with Henry V against the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 … I am going to suggest that the adoption of the leek as a Welsh emblem was down to a simple linguistic confusion between Cenhinen Pedr – ‘daffodil’ - and Cenhinen - ‘leek’. But I suspect that the Welsh soldiers who traditionally eat leeks on St. David’s Day are happier to eat that vegetable than they would be to eat daffodils!