The colour of carrots

The Carrot, Willem Frederik van Royen, 1699, Märkisches Museum, Berlin

The Carrot,
Willem Frederik van Royen,1699,
Märkisches Museum, Berlin

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.  carrotsDo 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!

From Annie Tempest, In the Garden with the Totterings

From Annie Tempest, In the Garden with the Totterings

Daucus carota L. [as Daucus polygamus Jacq. ex Nyman] carrot, Queen Anne’s lace Jacquin, N.J. von, Hortus botanicus Vindobonensis, vol. 3: t. 278 (1776)

Daucus carota 
from Jacquin’s , Hortus botanicus Vindobonensis, vol. 3: t. 278 (1776)

carrotsFirst 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.

carrotsHowever 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.

carrots

Daucus carota L. carrot, Queen Anne’s lace Vietz, F.B., Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum, vol. 1: t. 74 (1800) [F.B. Vietz]

Daucus carota from
Vietz,  Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum, (1800)

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.

carrotsApart 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.
carrots

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.

Gingidion The wild carrot (Daucus gingidium). (also referred to as Cretan carrot) fom the Codex Neapolitum http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

Gingidion
The wild carrot (Daucus gingidium).
(also referred to as Cretan carrot) from the Codex Neapolitanus
http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

Staphylinos Agrios The wild carrot, but appears to be a primitive type of cultivated carrot from the Codex Neapolitanum http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

Staphylinos Agrios
The wild carrot, but appears to be a primitive type of cultivated carrot from the Codex Neapolitanus
http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staphylinos Keras The cultivated carrot from the Codex Neapolitanum http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

Staphylinos Keras
The cultivated carrot from the Codex Neapolitanum
http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk

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.

Daucus carota from Roma 4182 folio 49r.) a manuscript copy of Tacuinum Sanitatis http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/photos/tacuinum1lge.jpg

Pastinaca [but almost certainly carrot]  from Roma 4182 folio 49r.) a manuscript copy of Tacuinum Sanitatis
http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/photos/tacuinum1lge.jpg

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.

"Pastinaca Erraticus, from Fuchs' 1542 De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institute)

“Pastinaca Erraticus, from Fuchs’ 1542 De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institute)

 

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!

Carrots from John's revision of Gerard's Herbal 1633

Carrots from John’s revision of Gerard’s Herbal 1633

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). carrotsSo 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.

carrotsThe 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.

Christ and the Adulteress Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt http://www.wga.hu/html_m/a/aertsen/christ_a.html

Christ and the Adulteress
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
http://www.wga.hu/html_m/a/aertsen/christ_a.html

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.

Detail - Anonymous but attributed to Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck 1610 Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, c. 1610. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Detail from Kitchen Interior with the Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, Anonymous c. 1610. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Gerrit Dou The Grocer's Shop 1647 Oil on wood, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Gerrit Dou, The Grocer’s Shop, 1647.  Louvre

 

detail from Joachim Wtewael 1566-1638 The Vegetable seller 1618 Utrecht Centraal Museum

detail from Joachim Wtewael  The Vegetable Seller 1618 Utrecht Centraal Museum

Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still-life c. 1600 Oil on canvas Hernani Collection, Madrid

Juan Sanchez Cotan,
Still-life c. 1600  Hernani Collection, Madrid

detail from Nicholaes Maes Vegetables Market (approx 1655-65), (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

detail from Nicholaes Maes Vegetable Market (approx 1655-65), Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Kitchen Scene Pieter Cornelisz. van Rijck 1621 - detail above 103,2 x 137,5 cm Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

detail from Kitchen Scene                              Pieter Cornelisz. van Rijck, 1621,               Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

carrotsThey 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.

carrotsCarrots 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.    

Willem van Mieris The Greengrocer(1731) Oil on wood, 40 x 34 cm. Wallace Collection, London - right

Willem van Mieris The Greengrocer(1731)
Oil on wood, 40 x 34 cm. Wallace Collection, London – right

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:

https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753000819141#page/n271/mode/2up

James Gillray, (1756-1815) Carrot Sandwich - According to Historical and descriptive account of the caricatures of James Gillray by Thomas Wright and R.H. Evans 1851, "The scene represented here is said to have been one of the usual amusements of Lord Sandwich. A guinea was the usual mark of his attention to the lucky flower-girl, or itinerant barrow-woman, who attracted his glance."

James Gillray, (1756-1815) Carrot Sandwich – According to Historical and descriptive account of the caricatures of James Gillray by Thomas Wright and R.H. Evans 1851, “The scene represented here is said to have been one of the usual amusements of Lord Sandwich. A guinea was the usual mark of his attention to the lucky flower-girl, or itinerant barrow-woman, who attracted his glance.”

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.”   carrots

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:

https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=n_dEAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA77

Gerrit Dou Woman peeling carrot 1613-1675, Oil on wood,Staatliches Museum, Schwerin

Gerrit Dou
Woman peeling carrot
1613-1675, Oil on wood,Staatliches Museum, Schwerin

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!

Journal of Natural Philosophy, vol.15, 1806

Journal of Natural Philosophy, vol.15, 1806

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:

https://archive.org/stream/journalofnatural15lond#page/56/mode/2up

Portrait of Philippe André de Vilmorin (1776-1862), originally published in Gustave Heusé, Les Vilmorin (1746-1899), Paris 1899

Portrait of Philippe André de Vilmorin (1776-1862),from Gustave Heusé, Les Vilmorin, Paris 1899

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.

from the 'Album Benary', engraved by G. Severeyns(1876)

from the ‘Album Benary’, engraved by G. Severeyns (1876)

“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.

Daucus [as Daucus radice atrorubente] Weinmann, J.W., Phytanthoza iconographia, vol. 2: t. 459, fig. c (1739) [unsigned]

Daucus  from Weinmann’s Phytanthoza iconographia, vol. 2: t. 459, fig. c (1739)

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.carrots

from the Transactions

from the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, 1842.

 

 

 

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.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:

https://archive.org/stream/mobot31753002640925#page/348/mode/2up

Carrot-Nutri-Red-Sugarsnax-PurplesnaxThis 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:

https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/pdfs/ch5102-carrot.pdf

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One Response to The colour of carrots

  1. Pat Webster says:

    I find all of your posts interesting and definitely worth reading, but this one is very tasty indeed. Thank you!

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