Call me Porrophagus. 

This nickname was originally given to the Roman emperor Nero and translates as “leek-eater,” describing our shared passion for that particular plant.   

It feels like a miracle to still be eating fresh vegetables at the end of January. Though I grew my own leeks, I ate them as soon as I harvested them. The leeks that are currently in my life — and my refrigerator’s crisper drawer — are thanks to the Island Grown Initiative’s winter CSA and its fabulous farmers. 

Leeks are lingerers. They take at least 60 days after planting to be harvested but will be thin if you get them then. For the fatties, it can take more than 100 days to mature, so these hearty heavies can remain in the ground under mulch for warmth and dug throughout the winter for some late-season varieties. 

Rooted in history, as well as the soil, leeks have been loved for a long time. Ancient Egyptians were known to eat them, as were Romans. Leeks were mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and dried specimens have been found at archaeological sites, as well as depictions of them on wall carvings and tomb paintings. 

More than just a food source, leeks are also symbolic. They are the national emblem of Wales, signifying bravery and victory. Two different tales are told to explain this tradition.   

One is that soldiers in a battle wore leeks on their caps at the suggestion of St. David to distinguish them from the enemy.  \The other is that a separate skirmish was fought and won in a leek field. To honor the soldiers of both encounters and remember their bravery, leeks were worn in the caps of Welsh people on St. David’s Day, which is March 1. 

Shakespeare mentions this vegetable-wearing custom, calling it an “ancient tradition” in his play Henry V. During a conversation with King Henry, Captain Fluellen explains, “the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps, which, your Majesty know, to this hour is an honorable badge of the service. And I do believe your Majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.” King Henry concurs, noting that he will “wear it for a memorable honor, For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.” 

Leek cultivation spread across countries and oceans, and they are widely enjoyed. Some gardeners are already getting ready to start planting this year’s crop: I noted the other week that my neighboring columnist Lynne Irons will soon be sowing leeks in her famous greenhouse. I know that it is best to take her advice, and so I will be soon doing the same. 

This makes the leek a year-round Islander for growing and eating. And with my deep affection, I might even consider putting one in my cap (perhaps to munch on later; they are good raw too). No matter how you cook them, use them, or value them, I am in good company with the likes of Nero, St. David, Shakespeare and all others who dig this venerable vegetable.

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.