Leeks belong to the genus Allium, which also contains mainstays of the kitchen like onion, garlic, scallion, and shallot.
It looks like a plumper version of green onion: it is about one to three inches wider and twice as tall as a green onion. Native to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, leeks have a rich history of usage in ancient Rome and ancient Egypt, with evidence of its cultivation dating back to almost four thousand years.
Leeks have an onion-like taste although milder with a creamier texture, and can substitute their better-known cousin in many recipes. This vegetable is the perfect choice to tease the taste buds with some delicate flavors. You can eat it raw, dice in salads, sauté, or incorporate it in soup recipes to add depth of flavors.
Loaded with nutrients and antioxidants, leeks also provide a myriad of health benefits, from lowering cancer risk to improving ocular health. To gain in-depth knowledge about the health benefits of leeks and how to grow them in your garden, keep reading this article.
Historical and Cultural Significance Health Benefits
In addition to their delicious taste, leeks also hold a lot of historical and cultural significance. Dried specimens found in the archaeological sites of ancient Egypt prove that the consumption of leeks dates back to 3000 BC. In fact, it was a staple food of ordinary people and the working class in Egypt who ate it regularly.
The ancient Romans were also fond of leeks and consumed them regularly as they considered leeks superior to onions and garlic. Several recipes containing leek appear in the Roman cookbook Apicius – presumably the world’s first cookbook to be recorded. It was the favorite vegetable of Roman Emperor Nero, who ate it so often that his people titled him ‘Leek Eater’.
Today leek is the national emblem of Wales, which is worn every year on St. Peter’s Day to celebrate and honor the country’s patron saint.
Nutritional Value of Leeks
Leeks are laden with nutrients, which means they are dense with vitamins and minerals and yet acutely low in calories. A 100 gram serving of cooked leeks contains just thirty-one calories. They possess salubrious properties that promote the healthy functioning of the body. Some of the nutrients loaded in leeks and their health benefits are listed below:
Vitamins are a rich source of Vitamin K – a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an essential role in blood clotting and wound healing. It also strengthens bone health and prevents the risk of bone-related conditions like osteoporosis by promoting the activity of the osteocalcin protein. A vitamin K rich diet will increase your bone density and protect you from hip fractures or distortions. To keep your bones healthy, eat fresh leeks without cooking or boiling them as they contain the maximum amount of vitamin K in an untreated state.
Leeks also contain a high amount of carotenoids, such as beta carotene, which promote ocular health and prevents the risk of eye diseases. Inside our body, Carotenoids are converted into vitamin A, which plays a vital role in the healthy functioning of the eyes and improves the immune and reproductive system.
Lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids found in leeks in high amounts, improve vision, alleviate tiredness, and protect the eyes from cataracts – an ocular condition in which the eye lens is clouded in older people. It can impair vision and, if not treated, can lead to blindness. Zeaxanthin and lutein protect your eyes from cataracts by forming a protective barrier. A carotenoid-rich diet will also prevent other age-related ocular conditions like macular degeneration.
Leeks, like their other family members, are loaded with antioxidants, especially polyphenols and sulfur compounds.
These antioxidants protect your skin and body against free radicals, which can damage your cells and lead to cancer, diabetes, and heart problems. Researchers have found a link between leek consumption and reduced risk of cancers of various body parts such as colon, stomach, and prostate. They believe that the antioxidants in leeks might be repairing DNA and lowering the risk of cancers.
Leeks are also a rich source of kaempferol – a polyphenol antioxidant that possesses anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. It has proved to protect against heart diseases and some types of cancer.
Varieties of Leeks
Although equally nutritious, different cultivars possess different valuable qualities and thus have slightly different requirements to thrive. Therefore, it is imperative to know the features of these cultivars before choosing which one to grow in your garden.
Generally, they are subdivided into two categories: summer leeks and overwintering leeks. Summer leeks are harvested in the same season they are planted, while overwintering varieties are harvested in the following spring after plantation. Overwintering leeks are usually larger and more flavor-enriched than their summer counterparts. Following are some of the most commonly used leek cultivars and their characterizing features:
American Flag is an heirloom variety known for being one of the tallest leek cultivars. It features long, slender shafts and thick, blue-green leaves. When fully matured, it can be as big as twenty inches tall and two inches wide. It possesses a very mild, sweet taste.
Early giant is an heirloom variety as well. As the name suggests, it is known for its short maturation period. It is ready for harvest in just 98 days. It also has a considerable size with thick stems and a mild flavor.
Autumn Giant Leek
Autumn Giant is an heirloom variety that can reach a height of over thirty inches when fully matured. This tall variety also features boastful stalks that are often three inches wide at maturity. Autumn Giant has a short maturation period and is ready for harvest in 130-150 days.
How to Grow and Care for Leeks
It is quite easy to grow leeks from seed, and almost anyone can plant them at home! We have made the process further easy by listing the steps you need to follow to grow nutritious leeks:
- The first step is to start seeds indoors in either a seed tray or pot. You can also directly sow them outdoors if the temperature is suitable for germination: above 55 °F and below 77 °F. Leeks are usually planted in early spring and harvested in the following fall months.
- Once the seedlings are six to eight inches tall or about the length of a pencil, they are ready for transplant. Now it is time to gradually harden them before transplanting them outdoors. Place the seedlings outdoors for a few hours for about a week, slowly lengthening the period every day.
- After a week of hardening, remove seedlings from the indoor pot and bury them in your prepared soil. Bury each seedling in a hole deep enough to cover half of its entire length. The holes should be wide enough to allow space for growth but not wider than one inch. Each hole should be at least seven inches apart from its adjacent one in a row. If you need more than one row of holes for your seedlings, make sure the rows have a minimum of eleven inches of space amongst them.
- Once the seedlings are inside the holes, fill them with water instead of filling them with more soil. This technique gives seedlings enough space to grow to a plump size.
Most leek varieties have a long growing period of four to five months; however, new cultivars can mature in a few as ninety days.
- Leeks enjoy basking sunlight, so choose a spot in your garden that receives ample sunlight. Additionally, they require eight hours of daylight throughout their growing season to thrive, so make sure they get their dosage every day.
- They need well-drained loamy soil, with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Nutrient-rich soil is necessary for a fruitful leek harvest, so feed your soil with compost and organic matter. Once you are half-way through the growing season, you should also side-dress the growing area with a balanced fertilizer.
- Due to their shallow root systems, you need to water leek seedlings frequently. In temperate regions, a weekly watering of one inch is enough for the seedling. However, if you are growing the plant in an area with high temperatures, increase the frequency accordingly.
- The leek’s white stem is the most commonly consumed part and the one frequently used in recipes. To enjoy this succulent part, farmers blanch the leek: they mount up soil around the plant as it grows out to hide it from the sunlight, preventing it from forming chlorophyll and turning green.
- Leeks are a cold-hardy vegetable, so you do not need to worry about the temperatures when growing them. You can grow them throughout the winter season; in fact, leeks grown in low temperatures supposedly have a deeper and richer flavor.
Leeks are a nutrient-dense vegetable that possesses anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory qualities. It will protect your body from cancers, improve your vision, and lower the risks of various heart diseases. Not only are they a natural source of nutrients, but are also easy to grow at home. So, what are you waiting for? Plant some leek seeds in a pot today and enjoy the countless health benefits they provide!