You’ve probably wondered why some carrots are purple, while others are red or yellow. Well, guess what? The common carrot has only been orange since the 16th Century. Before that, purple and red hues were actually the norm, rather than the exception.
Carrots Used to be Purple?
When you were a kid, chances are you picked up a bright orange crayon at some point and saw that it was labeled as “carrot”. After all, other than actual oranges, the most orange-colored plant in the world is the carrot, right? Not necessarily.
What we recognize as modern carrots evolved (or rather, were specifically bred) from wild plants that we refer to as Daucus carota. The wildflower known as Queen Anne’s Lace is one of these wild carrot species, with a fully edible root that both smells and tastes like modern carrots. Just don’t mix it up with water hemlock (Cicuta), which looks very similar, but will kill you if you eat it.
Carrots originated somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia, and were brought to Spain by the Moors around the 8th century. At that time, they were deep purple in color, though some of them were dark red or even black. These sweet, dark, crunchy roots captivated people’s attention, and their popularity spread like wildfire.
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Many vegetables were traded along the Silk Road during this time, so between the 8th and 14th century, purple carrots were introduced across much of Europe and Asia. They became naturalized in the Mediterranean around the time of the Crusades, made their way through Russia and into China, and then over to Japan.
There were, however, also some pale yellow varieties. From what we can discern from 10th century writings, yellow carrots were preferred in cooking because they didn’t bleed out dark colors into the rest of the food. After all, if you’re making a lovely rice and apricot dish with carrots in it, would you prefer it to be gorgeous and golden? Or a bizarre purple-tinted monstrosity? Exactly.
How did Orange Carrots Evolve?
As mentioned, people seemed to prefer those light-colored carrots to the darker roots, although the latter are much tastier. Carrots still weren’t terribly popular vegetables between the 10th and 15th centuries: folks were still feeding them to livestock like horses, mules, and pigs rather than serving them at the dinner table. For most, root vegetables were looked down upon. They were seen as “common”, eaten by peasants rather than those of the upper classes.
Of course, many of the poorer classes realized how delicious carrots are, and many medieval recipes for root soups and stews still survive today.
In the 15th century, Dutch painters started to incorporate carrots into paintings of daily life—particularly those of market scenes. Suddenly the upper classes took note and started paying more attention to these humble little roots. They also preferred the yellow varieties over the purple ones, but got creative with their growing techniques.
Around the mid 16th century, Dutch growers started cross-breeding the pale yellow carrots with red varieties until they achieved a stunning orange hue. Some people claim that orange carrots gained popularity around this time in support of William of Orange. We won’t go into a long diatribe about Holland’s battle for independence, but you can read about it here if you like. There’s no evidence to support that claim, but it’s a nice idea.
Culinary historians just think that these orange carrots were sweeter, juicier, crunchier, and bigger than the purple or red cultivars. As a result, since the botanists created the ultimate delicious root crop, why tamper with it further?
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Are Purple Varieties Healthier than Orange Ones?
All carrots are high in fiber and low in fat. Furthermore, they’re all packed with beta-carotene, which is a powerful antioxidant that’s great for eyes, skin, and hair.
Purple carrots also have anthocyanins, which are like the Marvel superheroes of antioxidants.
Orange carrots were the norm until about a decade ago. That’s about the time when people started to rediscover heirloom cultivars. Suddenly beautiful purple, red, yellow, and black carrots started appearing at fancy restaurants everywhere.
Not only are they more flavorful than orange carrots, they certainly seem to be healthier too.
Grow Your Own Purple Carrots!
If you’re interested in growing your own carrots, that’s great! There are several different heirloom cultivars to choose from. Better yet, carrots are super-easy to grow, and you can eat the greens as well as the roots. Try growing some of these next season:
Also, the next time your purple-haired great aunt comes for a visit, refer to her as “carrot top” just to make things interesting.