Potted history of the carrot

Any idiot knows a carrot from a parsnip. They may be close cousins - members of a family that includes celery, parsley, hemlock, and all those umbrella-flowered plants that scent our summer verges. But where parsnips are white, carrots are orange and always have been . . . haven't they? Well no, actually. Until humans interfered, carrots were purple, red, green, black, yellow or white. Which is why they were frequently lumped in with parsnips until Linnaeus, the 18th-century plant classifier, gave them separate names.

Despite this confusion, we know that carrots have been valued since prehistoric times - either for the medicinal properties of their seeds (relieving wind tops the herbalist's list), for the supposed aphrodisiac effects of the phallic roots (the Roman emperor Calligula fed the senate a meal consisting of carrot dishes so he could see them "in rut like wild beasts") or simply as vegetables.

Carrots dropped off the European menu during the Dark Ages, returning when the Moors took Spain. By Elizabethan times, Flemish refugees were growing them in sandy Kent and Surrey, and the Virgin Queen herself loved them well buttered.

Only in the 17th century did Dutch growers begin crossing yellows and reds to produce the orange roots from which all modern carrots are descended.

They grow best in well-dug, light soil, and show carrots 1.5 metres long will develop in sand-filled drainpipes (break pipe to remove). The grower's worst enemy is carrot root fly. But while resistant varieties are now available, an alternative strategy is to plant sage or onions among the carrots, thereby confusing the flies.

Sweet, and rich in a pigment called carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A, the carrot has a distinguished wartime record, having served in pies, cakes, soft drinks and marmalade. In 1941, when the RAF was secretly experimenting with radar, the Air Ministry explained the sudden improvement in performance by claiming that pilots were being fed carrots.

But while vitamin-A deficiency can cause impaired night vision, and is a leading cause of blindness in poor countries, no amount of carrots will enhance healthy eyesight. Not even orange ones.


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