Ingredient Spotlight: Leeks

Leeks, also known as Allium ampeloprasum, are classified as a non-bulbing allium. Leeks are typically grown for their white, basal leaves. Leeks are a member of the Amaryllidaceae family, along with onions, shallots, and garlic.

Leeks originated in Central Asia, and were introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages, where they were grown and revered as a prized vegetable crop and commonly used to richen soup broth. In particular, the Welsh venerated leeks. In a battle fought in the sixth century, Welsh soldiers wore leek plants in their helmets, an act ordered by Saint David, which allowed the Welsh soldiers to be recognized and avoid friendly fire.  

Leek plants are large, upright, and have a long white cylindrical stalk below ground, and long, dark green, pointed leaves above ground. The edible portion of a leek is the below-ground, white cylinder-shaped bundle of leaf sheaths, called the stalk. The above ground leaves are used to richen broths or as flavor enhancers.

Leeks are biennials, but are typically grown as annuals. If leeks were allowed to grow for a second year, they would flower, go to seed, and then die back. Leek varieties recommended for Travis County include the King Richard, Lancelot, and American Flag leeks.

Leeks are a great transplant crop and can be moved into the soil starting in late spring, when the seedlings are about 8 inches tall. Several different leek varieties can be planted at the same time and harvested in succession throughout the growing season.

Leeks get their tall, white basal stalk through the use of blanching techniques implemented by their gardeners. Blanching, or “hilling,” is a technique used in vegetable growing where the early plant shoots are covered with soil to block them from sunlight in order to grow the white, edible section of the leek without the addition of chlorophyll. Blanching forces the leaves to grow higher up on the plant stock, producing an extra long edible portion of the plant.

Leeks take 75 to 130 days to mature, depending on the variety. Leek harvest is done by first loosening the soil, then pulling the leek crop out by hand, being careful not to damage the outer leaves.

While leeks are an extremely hardy plant, they remain susceptible to fungal rot and bacterial infections. A common leek ailment is leek rust. Leek rust starts as tan flecks, and as the disease progresses, the flecks turn into larger lesions, typically 3-5 millimeters in diameter. These lesions develop into bright orange pustules, which release clouds of orange uredospores that in turn infect other plants. In order to avoid leek rust, gardeners should remove any infected foliage from the area.

Leeks are an excellent choice for any gardener looking for a cold hardy, vigorous, unique, and tasty crop to add to their bustling garden!

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