Monty Don has done it again. I write a post about scything and lawns and he demonstrates how to do it on The Secret History of the British Garden, then I began writing a post on Eleanor Coade and before I had time to finish Monty talked about her in the next programme. Paxton was on my list too but he covered him this week so I can only assume he has a spy in my office!
So instead a post about carrots….
A whole post about those dull & tasteless orange roots? Why on earth would that be interesting? Well…. although it started as a bit of a joke, I discovered there’s a lot more to the story of the carrot than you might imagine. Do you know where they come from [apart from Sainsbury’s in a plastic bag], or how and when they became grown for food? Or what colour they are naturally? And did you know there is a carrot museum? I certainly didn’t ….so to get to the root of the colour of carrots… read on!
First a bit of basic botany: Carrots are members of genus Daucus which also contains…. parsnips, celery, parsley amongst its 80+ species.
Wild carrot is a persistent wild plant growing happily in difficult conditions. It has thin stringy white tap roots, which are usually forked, and with a strong and not particularly pleasant flavour. They are indigenous to almost all the temperate parts of the ‘old world’ ie Eurasia and Africa but not the Americas or Australasia.
There are two main sources of the carrots we commonly grow now. One is Central Asia, where it is likely carrots were first cultivated. Unfortunately the evidence for domestication is scant since obviously vegetables and roots crops are highly perishable, far more so than cereal crops which are often found in archaeology.
However almost certainly most ancient cultures used wild carrots, particularly the seeds, as a herb and a medicine before the roots were used as a food crop. Archaeo-botanists now believe that carrots became a food crop in the Indus Valley and the Middle East around 1000BC. It’s likely that these early cultivated introductions were thin-rooted and white or purple but then later natural mutations also resulted in yellow carrots as well.Certainly we know that purple and yellow carrots were being cultivated in the Middle east and Iran by the 10th and 11th centuries, and spread along the North African coast and into Spain. with the Arab empire. They were found in Italy by the 13thc, the Low Countries and Germany by the 14thc and finally reached Britain probably in the 15thc.
Apart from these central Asian carrots [sometimes known as eastern or anthocyanin carrots after the pigment they contain] there is another source for those in cultivation in the west today: wild carrots found in Turkey. These range in colour from dirty white to a grubby pinkish purple, with stringy thin roots, which might explain why, in the classical Mediterranean world, there was little distinction made between carrots, parsnips and skirrets. The same word pastinaca was used to describe them all however frustrating this may be for the garden or food historians of today.
In fact word carota doesn’t occur in Latin until the 2nd c AD when the physician Galen uses both daucus and carota to distinguish it from pastinaca for parnsips.
By the 6thc there are images in other medical treatises such as Codex Neapolitanus – a copy made in 521 of Dioscorides De Materia Medica, which show several types of carrot.
Galen’s distinction was the taxonomic root [if you will pardon the pun] of Linnaeus’s official description of the carrot in his 1753 work Species Planatarum.Nevertheless the use of the word pastinaca to describe both carrots and parsnips continued into the early modern period. The great German botanist Leonard Fuchs, for example, described red and yellow garden carrots as well as the wild sort, but names them all Pastinaca.
The 1633 updating of John Gerard’s Herbal explains further: “The Herbarists of our time do call the garden Parsneps … Pastinaca, and therefore wee haue surnamed it Latifolia, or broad leafed, that it may differ from the other garden Parsnep with narrow leaues, which is truly and properly called Staphylinus, that is, the garden Carrot.” The book has images and descriptions of both “red” and “yellow” carrots – BUT no orange one!
So where did the bright orange carrot come from? Nobody knows BUT it’s worth knowing that the very word orange itself is comparatively new. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s first recorded in 1512, and until about that time the colour was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red). So its quite possible that orange carrots existed but there was no single word to describe their colour adequately. The most likely explanation for their existence is that they derived from yellow carrots by a process of mutation and perhaps later by selection.
The first written evidence specifically for orange carrots is not until 1721 but we do know that orange carrots were around long before that because they appear in paintings from the mid-16thc onwards. The earliest I can find is in Christ and the Adulteress by Pieter Aertsen in 1559 where they sit in the front of centre-stage in the market.
But once you have seen one orange carrot in a 16th or 17thc painting you begin to spot them everywhere! Here are a few more… but notice the nationality of the painters.
They were mainly from the Low Countries [and Coton was from Spain which still ruled some of these provinces]. It was the Dutch who seem to have been the first to cultivate deliberately selected strains so that it is now thought that all the myriad modern varieties of western carrots are derived from a few of these early Dutch varieties. These notably included the Horn Carrot named after the town of Hoorn where they were probably developed and which were known to be popular in Amsterdam markets by 1610. Others included the imaginatively named Long Orange, Early Scarlet Horn, Early Half Long, Late Half Long, which were amongst the earliest to be listed by English seedsmen.
Carrots continued to appear in medical texts and herbals but they also move into cookery books by the early 18thc, usually cooked with large quantities of sugar and cream. This is around the same time that they also begin to appear in gardening books too.
The first major account is in Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening (1728). Section 7 on Kitchen gardening describes what one can only call ‘giant’ carrots, although as one might expect he does not recommend them for eating.
“Of Carrots we have three kinds, viz. The yellow or orange carrot, the red Carrot, and the wild or white Carrot; of which the yellow is the most valuable, called in Greek staphilinus, in Latin Pastinaca sativa tenuifolia, … and in English yellow Carrot. The root is of an orange (rather than a Limon) Colour both without and within. I have had carrots of this kind that have been twenty two inches in length and of twelve inches in circumference. And although Carrots of a very large size are much valued by many, I cannot recommend them as much as the middling size which are always much sweeter and less insipid. You can read all of more than 5 pages of Langley’s notes about carrots at:
The same trio of colours is noted by Thomas Hale in The Compleat Book of Husbandry of 1758 but the conclusion as to the culinary worthiness is different. He says “gardeners have …made what they call three principal kinds: These they call, 1. The dark red carrot. 2. The orange carrot. And 3. the white carrot. The first and last of these terms are somewhat improper, the first kind being only a very deep orange, and the other a very pale yellow. The first is most esteemed. The white kind is more common in France and Italy than here; and is the sweetest and finest flavoured of them all. The farmer is to cultivate not that which is best, but what people think so; and therefore he is to chuse the deep red, commonly called the Sandwich carrot.”
Sandwich was, of course, the place settled by Huguenot refugees, particularly market gardeners, throughout the 16th and 17thc and would imply that the origins of this particular sort of carrots were from the Low Countries.
To read all of Hale’s lengthy notes on carrots and their cultivation see:
Carrots were clearly considered an important food crop and early agricultural scientists turned their attention to improving their cultivation. In 1806 Wallis Mason won a silver medal from the Society of Arts for a report entitled “Experiments on the Culture of Carrots”, detailing every aspect of growing them. It even included a breakdown of labour costs and precise instructions on how the carrots were to lifted. The only thing he does not comment on is the best colour!
Stretching over 12 pages of dense text (though he describes it as concise!) it was published in their Transactions and reprinted in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts.
It is interesting that even at this early stage the market preferred standard-sized straight carrots. Mason instructs that the “overgrown and crooked carrots” should be “extracted before the rest go off to market, the former are retained for home consumption “for which they will answer as well as the others”. The ones retained were recommended as an extremely valuable feed to cart horses and cattle, but not riding horses since “nimble exercise causes them to be laxative and produce griping.” Mason’s full report can be found at:
However it was the famous French nurseryman, Philippe Andre de Vilmorin, who began a new range of experiments, deliberately selecting and breeding carrots of various colours from the wild sort. His work was reported in detail to the Horticultural Society of London in 1840. It was pre-Mendelian practical science in action.
Vilmorin raised the question of how wild plants had been transformed into kitchen garden plants, and more importantly why this had been considered “entirely natural” and had not attracted “the curiosity of the cultivator”. He was also inquisitive about why “garden kinds” have “a constant tendency to sport, generally in order to degenerate” whilst the natural stock “is essentially fixed and stable”. So, he set out to investigate.
“It might be supposed, and this opinion has sometimes been expressed to me by sensible men, that in order to create improved alimentary varieties, nothing has been more requisite than abundant nourishment and great care in garden culture.” But, as he pointed out you can feed a wild cabbage all you like and it might get bigger but it will never become a ‘headed cabbage’. So, having tried experiments with wild cabbage and perennial lettuce amongst other things, which did not ‘improve’ by feeding and care, he decided to turn his attention to the carrot.
In 1832 Vilmorin sowed wild carrot seed and obtained just normal wild carrot [hardly a surprise you might think!]. The following year he made sowings at different times and in different places and found a few late sown plants which did not run to seed and which had much fatter roots than normal. These few were transplanted, allowed to seed and the seed resown in 1835. From this crop some 20% were described as “pretty good carrots, small and middle-sized, but a little fibrous”, and Vilmorin transplanted the best of these and once agin saved the seed the following year. By 1837 the third generation was “very considerably improved; many of them were very large and fleshy, some exceeded the weight of a kilogramme”. The fourth generation did not have as large roots but they were much better quality and the there were fewer reversions and fewer which bolted.
But it in his observations on the colour of carrots you can really see signs of Mendelian laws in action.
Yellow and a few violet roots appeared in the second generation, with just a very few red showing up in the third, but importantly Vilmorin noticed that these red ones, unlike the other colour variations, came true from seed. From this it is possible to see how those early modern growers in Holland may have managed to breed orange carrots.
Vilmorin himself comments that his work must not considered ” a real victory” because no great “vegetable novelty” had been seen, but nevertheless something of “direct utility may be derived” particularly for improving field crops, and that is what he turned his attention to next, and as a result his company was responsible for considerable innovation in agricultural crops during the 19thc.
If you want to know more then the entire article can be found at:
This post started as a jokey piece, but as I progressed somehow became more serious. In order to keep a reasonable length I’ve had to remove all the carrot related trivia that I found so maybe there’ll be another post soon to cover things like Captain Cook’s carrot marmalade, carrots and nocturnal vision, carrot clarinets, why Caligula fed his senators with a meal entirely of carrots, and even how carrots won the Trojan Wars!
But if in the emantime you want to knw even more about the history of the carrot in cultivation try this serious academic article at: