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GardenSMART :: Colorful Carrots

Colorful Carrots

By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/

Carrots are one of the most rewarding crops that a gardener can grow. The nutritious roots are tender, crisp and juicy, a favorite for healthy snacking! Carrots come in a brilliant rainbow of colors from classic orange to dramatic shades of purple. It's hard to believe that this panoply of colors has all derived from the original thin, white-rooted wild carrot of Eurasia. From its original point of domestication, the carrot has branched off in several directions, each region selecting for a unique color, shape and size. The color of each carrot helps to paint a picture of its history and journey across the map.

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The orange carrot is one of the most iconic vegetables of modern history. While the archetypical orange-colored carrot reigns supreme today, you might be surprised to learn that the color orange is a relatively new look for this ancient root. In fact, the original carrots were not orange at all, but white and purple!

The carrot is a true chameleon. This nutritious root has magically transformed over centuries, its color changing as it has crossed the globe. While we in the West consider orange to be the quintessential carrot color, gardeners in India and Japan recognize red as the classic carrot color. Growers in Turkey and regions in the Middle East see purple roots as the quintessential carrot.

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Carrots originated in Afghanistan and possibly Northern Iraq and Pakistan sometime before 900 AD. The original carrot was a far cry from the large orange snack favored by Bugs Bunny. This spindly root was originally a creamy white color with a purple tinge. A natural mutation for yellow also occurred, making the first domesticated carrots purple, white and yellow.

Purple and yellow carrots were eventually traded from the Middle East to the Mediterranean around 100-900 AD. Purple carrots are particularly popular in Turkey, leading some historians to believe that Turkey is a separate and independent origin point of carrots.

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By the 1300s, yellow, purple and white carrots had moved west through Europe. We can see that specific regions had preference for certain colors. The Gniff carrot in Switzerland is an ancient variety with lavender-colored skin and a yellow core. Blanche E Collet Vert is an ancient white fodder carrot from Belgium.

It was in the Netherlands that the first orange carrots were selected. Dutch folklore tells a tale of patriotic carrot breeders who took the traditional yellow carrot and bred it for a bright orange color to honor William of Orange, leader of the Dutch revolt. This vibrant new color became the standard for western carrots. It was later introduced to the Americas and the orange carrot now can be found across the globe.

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While the original carrots spread across Europe and eventually turned orange, the foundational carrots that were spread across the East took a much different turn. By the 1700s the red carrot was described in India and China, and red, spicy carrots remain popular in the East to this day.

This incredible rainbow of carrots has been embraced as the public has been reawakened to the beauty of eating a healthy diet replete with color. Today in farmers markets across the country, one can find carrots in multiple hues. We love to grow a crop of rainbow carrots at the Baker Creek gardens; the kids are delighted by pulling surprise rainbow roots from the ground. Colorful carrots are the ultimate nutritious, kid-friendly veggie!


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