Dear Readers, as you might know, when winter comes around it gets harder and harder to find wild plants to write about, and even garden plants are thin on the ground. So, when the going gets tough I generally think of my stomach, and as I have a fridge full of fancy carrots at the moment, I decided to share this most cheap and cheerful of vegetables with you.
As you probably know, carrots are descended from the elegant wild carrot (Daucus carota), one of my very favourite plants. I love the little ‘nests’ that appear before the flower opens, and the way that some flowers have a single red one in the middle that looks like an insect and attracts pollinators.
However, the tiny though intensely carroty-flavoured root of the wild plant has been turned into a giant. The name ‘carrot’ is thought to derive originally from the Indo-European word ‘ker’, meaning ‘horn’. In Old English carrots and parsnips are lumped together as ‘mork’ (meaning edible root), probably because carrots were usually white at this time.
Indeed, carrots were not always bright orange – the trend towards ‘rainbow carrots’ (which include purple and orange ones, yellow ones, and pale orange ones, to name but a few) shows that the vegetable is full of possibilities. There is an ongoing argument about whether carrots ended up orange to honour the Dutch flag and William of Orange or whether the orange varieties were just easier to store and grow. What is clear is that the carrot that we eat today probably originated in Persia, which Wikipedia describes as ‘the centre of diversity for the wild carrot’. Over time, the plant was selectively bred for the sweetness and size of its root, and it was soon being eaten all over the world. It pops up in Spain in the 8th century, China in the 14th (these days China grows 45% of all the carrots in the world) and Japan in the 18th. By then it had also been carried to the New World by settlers, and John Aubrey was describing it as being grown in the UK in 1688. What a lot of travelling for a humble root!
I’m sure you will not need me to describe the many culinary uses of carrots. My Mum loved them in a stew with onions and pearl barley. I developed a taste for the intensely sweet Indian dessert gajar halva, which I always argue is actually healthy, in spite of the ghee and sugar, because surely it contains one of my five-a-day fruit and vegetable portions if I eat enough of it?
And furthermore, although you might think that munching on a carrot raw would be the best way to get all those vitamins (especially betacarotene (a form of Vitamin A), in fact we only absorb 3% of this micronutrient from the uncooked vegetable. This goes up to a whacking 39% if the carrot is pulped, cooked and if fat is added. Carrot cake anyone?
Do let me know how you enjoy your carrots (if indeed you do). In fact, I have never met anyone who actively disliked carrots – parsnips, turnips and brussel sprouts might be the work of the devil to some people, but most folk can at least tolerate a carrot.
And here, in a throwback to my original wild carrot post, I would like to share with you again the delights of the Carrot Museum, and in particular its post on ‘Flutenveg‘ – a group of people who make music out of root vegetables. To hear what a tarantella played entirely on carrots sounds like, have a listen. You won’t be disappointed!
Anyhow, back to some serious questions. Carrots are rich in Vitamins A, C and K, but do they actually help you to see in the dark? This was apparently a myth that was propagated during World War II by the Royal Air Force, to help to explain the success of the pilots during night skirmishes: this was actually due to improvements in radar technology, but the RAF obviously didn’t want the Germans to catch on. Carrots are also much enjoyed by many other nocturnal animals (such as rabbits) and you don’t see them tripping over twigs so it was probably a small leap of logic for most people to assume that it would help them too. Plus, which child wouldn’t want to see in the dark? What a super power that would be.
Now, I can’t leave the subject of carrots without referring to the nemesis of all gardeners who like to grow this vegetable – carrot fly (Chamaepsila rosae). This insect lays its eggs in the soil, and the larvae burrow into the carrots, using them for food and shelter. I can just imagine the bad language on harvesting. However, all is not lost (apparently) because the female carrot fly is a very low flyer, and if you build a stockade about two feet high all around your carrots, she will fly headlong into it, sit there dazed for a few moments and then buzz off to torment someone else.
But what if your carrot crop is more extensive, and a stockade more effort than you want to provide? Well the carrot fly also has a keen nose (or at least sense of smell as she has no nose that I can see). If you can confuse her with strong-smelling plants such as sage, rosemary, garlic and onions, the damage may be at least limited, plus you’ll have something nice to serve with your unperforated carrots.
Gardeners, do let me know what has worked for you. We had limited success with our flea beetle prevention measures but maybe we’ll do better with this.
And anyway, it turns out that too many carrots really will turn you orange (maybe that’s the problem with a certain ex-president of the US) – you can end up with carotenosis. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?
And finally, a poem. I rather like this poem by Ada Limon: it seems to sum up the frustration of being ‘a good girl’ and conforming to everyone’s idea of what you should be. See what you think.
I Remember the Carrots by Ada Limón
I haven’t given up on trying to live a good life,
a really good one even, sitting in the kitchen
in Kentucky, imagining how agreeable I’ll be –
the advance of fulfillment, and of desire –
all these needs met, then unmet again.
When I was a kid, I was excited about carrots,
their spidery neon tops in the garden’s plot.
And so I ripped them all out. I broke the new roots
and carried them, like a prize, to my father
who scolded me, rightly, for killing his whole crop.
I loved them: my own bright dead things.
I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong.
Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented
the contentment of the field. Why must we practice
this surrender? What I mean is: there are days
I still want to kill the carrots because I can.
Photo One By Stephen Ausmus – This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K11611-1 (next)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545126
Photo Two By Prerna Jaddwani – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40940261
Photo Four from http://www.flutenveg.com/
Photo Five by By J Ligero & I Barrios – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24986245
Photo Six By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10875095
Photo Seven by nanao wagatsuma, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons