Wild carrots look nothing like domesticated carrots. The roots are white or purple, small, and knobbly rather than bright orange, large, and uniform. They just look generally tuber-y, and you’d be hard-pressed to say they were carrots and not parsnips or some other root vegetable unless you’d been told.
But this is where all carrots began.
So, how did this drab, unappealing looking root end up as one of the most vibrant vegetables in the produce aisle? Let’s find out.
Domestication, Domestication, Domestication
When we humans domesticate a species, it doesn’t stay like its wild counterpart for long. Corn’s ancestor is a fairly standard looking grass. Wild bananas are short, stumpy, green—and inedible, at least if they’re not cooked. And wild carrots aren’t orange.
What happens is that as a plant gets domesticated, we start to take charge of its reproduction—and thus it’s evolution. In the wild, plants develop to take advantage of their environment. Large roots are costly—in survival terms—so they don’t grow any bigger than necessary in their natural habitat. However, to humans, large edible roots are a boon: they’re a great, easy source of calories and nutrients.
Around 1000 years ago, the first carrots were domesticated in Central Asia. These had purple and yellow roots. Over the years, people selected and sowed—both deliberately and accidentally—carrots with larger and larger roots and in a wider array of colors.
By the 1500s, domesticated carrots were red, white, yellow, purple, and, sometimes, orange. And that’s when things started to change for the carrot.
About That Dutch Thing
There is a reasonably persistent story that carrots are orange because of Prince William of Orange. In some variants, orange carrots were invented in honor of the prince; in others, farmers just started growing them in huge numbers in tribute to him—to the point that few other carrot colors are grown today.
Like all good stories, there are some elements of truth to it—and some bits of pure fabrication. The World Carrot Museum is pretty firm on the chain of events. It goes something like this:
- In the 16th Century, the Dutch were growing a lot of carrots in different shades. Some were yellow and purple. But some were also orange. Whatever way you look at things, the Dutch orange carrots predate William of Orange.
- In the 1570s, the Dutch adopted Orange as their national color during their War of Independence. It comes from the flag of the County of Nassau, the sovereign state which William of Orange was Count of before he became a Prince. (European titles are super awkward to keep track off; just roll with it).
- With orange as their national color, the Dutch started declaring other orange stuff national. Including the orange carrot, which became their national vegetable.
So, the order of things is orange carrots > the Dutch really like orange > the Dutch really like orange carrots.
So, Why Orange?
The orange color in carrots is caused by beta-Carotene. It’s also what gives sweet potatoes and pumpkins their color, and in lesser concentrations, white and yellow carrots. And it’s fat-soluble.
The color compounds in purple carrots, on the other hand, is water-soluble. Cook a pot of purple carrots, and the water goes dark and disgusting—and it’s apt to stain your wooden spoon. This, according to the World Carrot Museum, is the big reason that people have historically favored white, yellow, and yes, orange carrots over other colors.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
While industrial orange carrots still dominate grocery stores, things are different in farmers’ markets. You can find purple, white, and yellow carrots, as well as short ugly ones and big knobbly ones. There’s a lot more variety.
And while these carrots were never gone, they’re now getting a reputation as a superfood. Don’t be surprised if you see brightly colored rainbow carrots everywhere soon.