Carrots are front and center at this Mysore, India market.

In the summer, few wild flowers appear to be more common than Queen Anne’s lace. Small explosions of tiny white blossoms top slender green stalks of these delicate plants named for England’s Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. The name suits the delicate appearance—and certainly sounds better than what the plant really is, which is simply a wild carrot. And not just a wild carrot, but a domestic carrot gone feral, because the Americas had no carrots before English gardeners brought along their cultivated varieties. So these are escapees and aliens. But that means that, while a few seeds snuck out of the garden and reverted to an original wild type, even our domestic carrots are introduced plants.

The carrot as we know it is a native of Afghanistan, where evidence shows it was growing as early as 5,000 years ago. I say, “as we know it,” because these were domesticated carrots—where the first wild carrot arose is not so clear. Wild carrots, with short, skinny, acrid-tasting roots, were fairly widespread long before people were keeping track of what they were trading with their neighbors, appearing in much of West Asia and Europe. Traces of wild carrot seed have been found at prehistoric sites in Switzerland, and wild carrots were listed among the plants grown in the royal gardens of Babylon. But it appears that the wild carrot was grown for its seeds or leaves, which were used as medicines and seasonings. Though domesticating the carrot is relatively easy, with the root getting larger within a few generations, it seems it just didn’t occur to anyone west of Afghanistan to make the attempt.

While not as exciting as a sensational spice or exotic fruit, a sweet, crunchy root that seemed to be good for you was of sufficient interest that it got carried along on the old trade routes. The Greeks, though not wild about this veggie, were writing about the carrot as early as 500 B.C., so we know it had reached the Mediterranean by then. The Romans knew about it, but liked the turnip better.

During the Middle Ages, the carrot was one of several root vegetables included in the humble but fairly wholesome diet of the rural poor of northern Europe. There is some dispute among scholars as to when the carrot arrived where, but Charlemagne (742–814 A.D.) identified the carrot as one of the foods he wished to have cultivated in Germany and France, so it’s fair to rule out some of the later dates suggested. British records relate that, about the twelfth century, some people were sowing wild carrot seeds because they preferred them to the cultivated varieties, which indicates that the cultivated varieties were growing in England by then. (Worth noting because it contradicts those historians who state that the carrot didn’t reach England until the sixteenth century—if, in fact, such important debates interest you.)

China got the carrot a little later than Europe did, but it had probably been adopted there by the thirteenth century, if not earlier. The carrot reached the New World with the first English colonists. Root vegetables being fairly hardy, and the carrot being relatively popular, nutritious, and easy to grow, its seeds were among those that the earliest settlers brought with them. The rest is, as they say, history, with carrots wild and domestic filling garden plots and running riot along the roadside.

Cultivated carrots come in a variety of sizes and shapes: short and stubby, long and thin, blunt, pointy, globular, and everything in between. Orange carrots are pretty much the only ones that are popular today, though white, yellow, red, and purple are possibilities. Actually, orange is a relatively recent development; the familiar, carotene-rich carrot we consume today was developed in Holland in the 17th century. Before that, it ranged from pale yellow to black—but not orange.

Carotenoids, the pigments responsible for the yellow and orange color of fruits, vegetables, and autumn leaves, were so called because the first carotenoid chemically isolated was from a carrot. In addition to orange and yellow, the red color of tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, apricots, and bell peppers are also carotenoids (though most red colors in plants are caused by a different group of pigments). These things are really good for you—but so much has been published of late on how good carrots and carotenoids are for your health, I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say that, not only are they great raw, even cooked carrots are healthful.

Copyright © 2010 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, Geography, History, Nutrition

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