Carrots Used to Be Purple Before the 17th Century

Multi-colored carrotsToday I found out, before the 17th century, almost all cultivated carrots were purple.

The modern day orange carrot wasn’t cultivated until Dutch growers in the late 16th century took mutant strains of the purple carrot and gradually developed them into the sweet, plump, orange variety we have today.  Before this, pretty much all carrots were purple with mutated versions occasionally popping up including yellow and white carrots.  These were rarely cultivated and lacked the purple pigment anthocyanin.

It is thought that the modern day orange carrot was developed by crossing the mutated yellow and white rooted carrots as well as varieties of wild carrots, which are quite distinct from cultivated varieties.

Some think that the reason the orange carrot became so popular in the Netherlands was in tribute to the emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence.  This could be, but it also might just be that the orange carrots that the Dutch developed were sweeter tasting and more fleshy than their purple counterparts, thus providing more food per plant and being better tasting.

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Bonus Facts:

  • It is actually possible to turn your skin a shade of orange by massively over consuming orange carrots.
  • Orange carrots get their bright orange color from beta-carotene.  Beta-carotene metabolizes in the human gut from bile salts into Vitamin A.
  • The origins of the cultivated carrot is rooted in the purple carrot in the region around modern day Afghanistan.
  • When cultivation of the garden style orange carrot lapses for a few generations, the carrots revert back to their ancestral carrot types, which are very different from the current garden variety.
  • In ancient times, the root part of the carrot plant that we eat today was not typically used.  The carrot plant however was highly valued due to the medicinal value of its seeds and leaves.   For instance, Mithridates VI, King of Pontius (around 100BC) had a recipe for counteracting certain poisons with the principle ingredient being carrot seeds.  It has since been proven that this concoction actually works.
  • The Romans believed carrots and their seeds were aphrodisiacs.  As such, carrots were a common plant found in Roman gardens.  After the fall of Rome however, carrot cultivation in Europe more or less stopped until around the 10th century when Arabs reintroduced them to Europe.
  • British gunners in WWII were able to locate and shoot down German planes at night due to radar.  What does this have to do with carrots?  To cover up significant advancements the Allies made in radar technology at the time, and the extreme effectiveness of radar that resulted, the British spread about an urban legend that said that they massively increased the night vision of their pilots by having them consume large amounts of carrots.  This lie not only convinced the Germans, but also had a bonus effect of causing many British people to start planting their own vegetable gardens, including planting carrots.  This urban legend has persisted even to this day.
  • The largest carrot ever grown was 19 pounds; grown by John Evans in 1998 in Palmer, Alaska.
  • The Vegetable Improvement Center at Texas A&M recently developed a purple-skinned, orange fleshed carrot called the Beta Sweet.  This carrot is specialized to include substances that prevent cancer.  It also has extremely high beta-carotene content.
  • Almost one third of all carrots distributed throughout the world come from China, which is the largest distributor of carrots in the world.  Following them on gross production is Russia and then the United States.
  • Although the orange carrot was not cultivated before the 16th and 17th centuries, there is a reference in a Byzantine manuscript around 512AD which depicts an orange rooted carrot, suggesting that at least this mutant variety of carrot could be found at this time.
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