Carrots - The Road to Domestication


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History of the Carrot

The Road to Domestication.... AND the Colour Orange!

Chapters in the history rooms:
 
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 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline

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 History Part 2 - Neolithic to AD 200 - Origins and development

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 History Part 3 - AD 200 to 1500 - From Medicine to Food

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 History Part 4 - 1500 to 1700 - Evolution and Improvement in the Renaissance

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 History Part 5 - 1700 to 1900 - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves

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 History Part 6 - 1900 to date - The Modern Carrot and Genetic Discovery

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 History of Carrot Colour - The road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots

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 History in WW2 - Takes an in depth look of the role of carrots in World War Two, reviving its popularity

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 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books


Page Navigation: Domestication - Colour Orange - Art Works - Etymology - Ancient Manuscripts - Genetics - Dutch Connection


colors of carrots

Cultivation then Domestication

Summary of Early History - The Carrot has a somewhat complex and unclear history, surrounded by doubt and enigma and it is difficult to pin down when domestication took place. The wide distribution of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota, carota), the absence of carrot remains in archaeological excavations and lack of documentary evidence do not enable us to determine precisely where and when carrot domestication was initiated. Over thousands of years it moved from a small, tough, bitter and spindly root to a fleshy, sweet, pigmented unbranched edible root.  It transformed from its seeds being used as a medicine or aphrodisiac to the root being eaten in many different dishes. Even before the introduction of domesticated carrots, wild plants were grown in gardens as medicinal plants.

Unravelling its progress through the ages is complex and inconclusive, but nevertheless a fascinating journey through time and the history of mankind. It is considered that Carrots were originally purple with a thin root, then a mutant occurred which removed the purple pigmentation resulting in a new race of yellow carrots. Modern genetic evidence proves that orange carrots are derived from yellow varieties.

The use of the same name for plants of a different genus or species is one of the lasting ambiguities inherited from the ancients, who were more apt to lump vegetables together according to how they were used, as in the case of the Roman propensity for treating carrots, parsnips, and parsley root as "pastinaca".

The modern genetic scientists now know pretty much when carrots got their colour, and have a pretty good idea of how that happened, but they still can't quite figure out why!


DNA and Genetics (source - Reference - A high-quality carrot genome assembly provides new insights into carotenoid accumulation and asterid genome evolution - Nature Genetics (2016) doi:10.1038/ng.3565 Received 23 September 2015 Accepted 11 April 2016 Published online 09 May 2016   link here

Other previous studies (here) provide the first molecular investigation of the location and number of domestication origins of carrot. The origin of cultivated carrot used as root storage has generally been accepted to be either Central Asia (Vavilov, 1992 ) or Asia Minor (Banga, 1957b ).

Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that two recessive genes, y and y2 , play a major role in the accumulation of yellow and orange carotenoids in the root (Just et al., 2009 ). This observation, along with more recent genetic studies, provide support for Banga’s (1957b) hypothesis that orange root colour was selected out of yellow, domesticated carrots, probably in Europe.

Often the evolutionary history of a species can be found in a fossil record; other times, DNA and genetic fingerprints replace rocks and imprints. That is the case for the carrot, the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet, whose full genetic code has recently been deciphered by a team led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison in collaboration with the University of California, Davis.

May 2016 - Scientists have unveiled the gene in carrots that gives rise to carotenoids, a critical source of Vitamin A and the pigment that turns some fruits and vegetables bright orange or red. The new, high-quality genome assembly, which the researchers established for an orange doubled-haploid carrot (Nantes variety), contains more than 32,000 predicted protein-coding genes - more than humans!

As the researchers reported they were able to track down a candidate gene involved in orange carrot pigmentation and gained insight into the evolution of plants in the euasterid II lineage, which contains carrots, lettuce, sunflower, celery, and parsley. Read more here.

Looking back at the plant’s family tree the researchers have been able to determine that it split with the grape about 113 million years ago and from the kiwi about 10 million years after that.

The research team traced carrot evolution as far back as the dinosaurs. Sometime between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods - roughly around the time dinosaurs went extinct - carrots, along with other plants of the era, picked up genetic advantages that allowed them to thrive in differing environmental conditions.


Time frame and geography - The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear.

Carrot is a vegetable cultivated worldwide for the consumption of its root. Historical data indicate that root colour has been differentially selected over time and according to geographical areas. Genetic research has shown that Eastern orange carrots derived from yellow varieties. Chinese orange carrots may well have derived from red varieties - It is possible that Chinese orange were derived from Chinese red instead of Western orange. Those results suggest that a different, independent process may have led to the development of orange carrot in China during the spread of the original Asian carrot varieties. (below - here)

Root pigmentation depends on the relative proportion of different carotenoids for the white, yellow, orange and red types but only internally for the purple and black ones.

The orange carrot, now so familiar, was once a novelty. In fact this young upstart was first established and then commercially cultivated cultivated a little more than four hundred years ago. Until then, the purple and yellow varieties were supreme. Although we consider the carrot immutable, it has been continually reinvented though the ages.

The commonly accepted reason why the ancients preferred orange and yellow carrots over the prevailing purple was because the purple turned the cooking utensils purple and the cooking water a muddy colour. This is because the pigment in orange carrots is fat soluble, whereas the purple is water soluble. Apparently historic humans just liked the way yellow and orange carrots looked and cooked better than purple ones. Is it possible that this is one question best answered by people, rather than the genetic research into carrots. (examples of art work here)


Why are orange carrots, orange?

Philipp Simon, a research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin, had the same question. The carotenoids that give carrots their vibrant hue are also what make them healthy for humans: Those chemicals are sources of vitamin A.

Recently, Simon and 20 other scientists scraped together the vegetable’s genome: a string of DNA more than 32,000 genes long. Their results, published in the journal Nature Genetics, help explain how carrots evolved from their wild white form to the one we know today.

From that long string of DNA, Simon was able to tease out a gene thought to be responsible for making carrots orange. It’s still just a candidate, he cautioned. The gene in question — DCAR_032551, or the “Y gene” for short — is found in other plants. It causes red, orange and yellow pigments to accumulate in leaves, where they help with photosynthesis.

But sometime about 1,100 years ago, farmers in what is now Afghanistan took advantage of a mutation in the Y gene that put it to work down in their carrots’ roots. In the process of domesticating the white, wild carrot, they turned it yellow. Six hundred years later in Europe, cultivation took another turn, and carrots deepened in hue from yellow to dark orange.

“There’s no good biological reason for carrots to be orange except one,” he said. “And it’s that people have been diddling around with carrots for 1,000 years.”

Carrots are orange because they absorb certain wavelengths of light mcarrot crownore efficiently than others. Beta-carotene is the main pigment and is mainly absorbs in the 400-500nm region of the visible spectrum with a peak absorption at about 450nm. Carotenoids are one of the most important groups of natural pigments. They cause the yellow/orange colours of many fruit and vegetables. Though beta-carotene is most abundant in carrots it is also found in pumpkins, apricots and nectarines. Dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli are another good source.

In these the orange colour is masked by the green colour of chlorophyll. This can be seen in leaves; in autumn, when the leaves die, the chlorophyll breaks down, and the yellow/red colours of the more stable carotenoids can be seen.

Cultivation of carrot in ancient times is still much disputed, mainly because daucus carota inter-crosses freely with other carota types, producing many and varied variations.

Orange CarrotsIt is not clear where or when the Western orange carrot first appeared.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the origin of orange carrot in its cultivated form (1) Vilmorin (1859) concluded that orange carrots were selected in Europe directly derived from wild carrots; (2) Small (1978)and Thellung (1927) discussed the possibility that orange carrot had a Mediterranean origin, resulting from a hybridization event with D. carota subsp. maximus ; (3) Banga (1957b) concluded that orange carrots were selected from yellow cultivated carrots; and (4) Heywood (1983) concluded that orange carrots were hybrids between European cultivated and wild carrots.

It should be noted that none of these hypotheses were based on genetic analysis, but rather were based on taxonomic interpretations, historical documents, contemporary paintings and geographical distribution of wild carrot and orange cultivated carrot. The orange carrot probably existed perhaps as early as the 6th century, and it is likely that it began as a mutation of the Asian purple carrot and was cultivated into the modern edible plant in the 16th century in the Netherlands.

Some early depictions of Orange Carrots here.


How did they become Orange? -

A. Origin of orange pigment accumulation - Previous hypotheses have been proposed over the years to explain the origin of orange carrots:

(1) Vilmorin (1859) concluded that orange carrots were selected in Europe directly derived from wild carrots;

(2) Small (1978) and Thellung (1927) discussed the possibility that orange carrot had a Mediterranean origin, resulting from a hybridization event with D. carota >subsp. maximus

(3) Banga (1957b) concluded that orange carrots were selected from yellow cultivated carrots; Banga proposed, on the basis of the appearance in European oil paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries that the Dutch selected and fixed orange varieties from yellow,  developing its colour from gradual selections of yellow carrots.

(4) Banga (1963) considered that the purple carrot spread into the Mediterranean in the 10th century where it is thought a yellow mutant appeared. The purple and yellow carrots both gradually spread into Europe in subsequent centuries. It is considered that the white carrot is also a mutant of yellow varieties.

(5) Heywood (1983) concluded that orange carrots were hybrids from a genepool involving yellow rooted eastern carrots, cultivated white-rooted derivatives of wild carrot and wild unselected populations of adjacent Daucus Carota subspecies in Europe and the Mediterranean. (V H Heywood - Relationship and Evolution in the Daucus Carota Complex - 1983)

(6) Mackevic (1932) states that orange-rooted carrots occurred in the Mediterranean, around Turkey, where cultivated carrot diversity was particularly prominent.

It should be noted that none of these hypotheses were based on genetic analysis, but rather were based on taxonomic interpretations, historical documents, and geographical distribution of wild carrot and orange cultivated carrot.

From the 10th through 18th centuries, phenotypic selections of domesticated carrot root colour were, perhaps surprisingly to people today, yellow and purple. Orange root colour, through the accumulation of high levels of carotenes, could be considered a secondary domestication event or a selection from cultivated carrot.

Written documents describing orange carrots did not appear until 1721, with the description of the “Long Orange” and several “Horn” types (Banga, 1957b , 1963 ), although the orange carrot appeared in  Renaissance paintings as early as 1515  (Stolarczyk and Janick, 2011 ) and perhaps earlier. (examples here)

B. Genetic Research

The orange carrot probably existed perhaps as early as the 6th century, and it is likely that it began as a mutation of the Asian purple carrot and was cultivated into the modern edible plant in the 16th century in the Netherlands. From the 10th through to the 18th centuries, phenotypic selections of domesticated carrot root colour were, perhaps surprisingly to people today, mainly yellow and purple.

The latest genetic research shows conclusively that orange carrot was developed from yellow varieties.

"The fact that orange carrots used in this research form a sister clade with all other cultivated carrots (yellow, red, and purple) supports the idea that orange carrot was selected from cultivated carrot. Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that two recessive genes, y and y2 , play a major role in the accumulation of yellow and orange carotenoids in the root (Just et al., 2009). This observation, along with the study referenced below, provides support for Banga’s (1957b) hypothesis that orange root colour was selected out of yellow, domesticated carrots."

(Source: Iorizzo, Simon and others - Genetic Structure and Domestication of Carrot( daucus carota subsp. sativus ) (apiaceae) - American Journal of Botany 100(5): 930–938. 2013.)

The Chinese Orange

There is some further research which finds evidence, based on simple sewquencing, which suggests results suggest that Chinese orange carrots may have undergone a specific, independent process different from that of Western orange, and derived from red (Eastern varieites).

Source - The unique origin of orange carrot cultivars in China Zhen-Guo Ma 2016 Euphytica (2016) 212:37–49




Domesticated Cultivated Carrot - Daucus carota, sub species sativus 

The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear. Vavilov (1992 , pp. 337–340) identified Asia Minor (eastern Turkey) and the inner Asiatic regions as the centers of origin of cultivorange carrot close upated carrot and noted Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) as being “the basic center of Asiatic kinds of cultivated carrots” where “wild carrots … practically invited themselves to be cultivated”.

As observed by the presence of carrot seed at prehistoric human habitations 4000 to 5000 years ago (Newiler, 1931), it is speculated that wild carrot seed was used medicinally or as a spice (Andrews, 1949 ; Brothwell and Brothwell, 1969).

Carrot was cultivated and used as a storage root similar to modern carrots in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and perhaps Anatolia beginning around the 10th century (Mackevic, 1932 ; Zagorodskikh, 1939). On the basis of historical documents, the first domesticated carrot roots were purple and yellow and recorded in Central Asia, Asia Minor, then Western Europe and finally in England between the 11th and 15th centuries (Banga, 1963). Interestingly, orange carrots were not well documented until the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe (Banga, 1957a , b; Stolarczyk and Janick, 2011), indicating that orange carotenoid accumulation may have resulted from a secondary domestication event.

Wild carrot has existed across much of Europe and parts of Asia since Neolithic times, evidenced from seeds remains found in archaeological sites. The domestic carrot did not descend directly from the Wild Carrot, it is thought that in the experiment, in 1866, mutations from the wild varieties were erroneously selected and developed. No one has managed to repeat this experiment.  The primary origins of the domesticated carrot are Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Carrot domestication took somewhat differing paths east and west of Central Asia.

Morphological characteristics lead to a division of the cultivated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) into tCarrot Colorswo botanical varieties: var. atrorubens and var. sativus (Small 1978).  Var. atrorubens refers to carrots originating from the East, exhibiting yellow or purple storage roots and poorly indented, grey-green, pubescent foliage. Var. sativus refers to carrots originating from the West and exhibiting orange, yellow or sometimes white roots, and highly indented, nonpubescent, yellow-green foliage (Small 1978). Many intermediate variants exist between these two types.

Before the first reports of orange carrots, purple root colour was apparently more popular in eastern regions, yellow more popular in the west. Eastern carrots tend to have less deeply divided leaflets with heavy leaf pubescence in some cultivars. While early flowering is unacceptable for any carrot production, eastern carrots have a greater tendency toward early flowering than western carrots, likely due to the somewhat warmer climates over the eastern production range.

Beyond the yellow, purple, and orange root colours, eastern carrots have long included red-rooted types while western carrots included white-rooted types. Carrot use has also varied across production areas, with a more predominant use as animal forage in the east but largely human use as a root vegetable in the west.


The origin of the cultivated carrot is clearly acknowledged to be purple in colour and in the Afghanistan/Asia Minor region mainly because it was known to exist there well before reliable literature references or paintings gave evidence of Western carotene carrots. It is thought to have been in existence a couple of thousand years bc. (Brothwell)

It is thought the carotene carrot was domesticated in the regions around Turkey. The precise date is not known but thought to be before the 8th century. Traders and adventurers visiting Afghanistan took the carrot to other places including the Mediterranean countries.  It was probably the Romans who spread the carrot into western Europe, but it would not have been orange in colour at that time..

It has been suggested by several writers that a probable origin of the cultivated carrot is from a crossing of Wild Carrot (D Carota s. sp carota) and D Carota s. sp.maximus as many of the morphological characters of the cultivated carrot are intermediate between those of the afore mentioned sub species. (Thellung). 

This makes a lot of sense when the maximus grows in regions around the Mediterranean and an abundance of wild carota in Asia Minor (which is nearby). So it is possible that subspecies sativus might have originated there.  It is not clear where and when domestication took place, some commentators argue that if they did not originate in Afghanistan then they were first cultivated on the eastern Mediterranean, possibly Persia.  Vavilov colored carrots Afghanistan

What is clear is that the purple carrot existed in Central Asia and was brought west by the Arabs in about the 10th century.

Modern research has shown that there are two distinct groups of domesticated carrots from which the modern orange carrot derives, these are distinguished by their root colours and habits,  and the features of the leaves and flowers.

Nicolai Vavilov - 1924

While developing his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collecting seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world's largest collection of plant seeds.

In 1924 he and Dmitrii Bukinich undertook an expedition across Afghanistan, the routes of the expedition covered 5000 km. The members of expedition collected more than 7000 species of the plants. The report of the expedition was entitled "Zemledel'cheskii Afghanistan" (Agricultural Afghanistan) and included  a colour plate of purple, yellow and white carrots, has confirmed Vavilov’s assumption that Afghanistan is a place of origin of some of the most important agricultural plants, including carrot.


Eastern Carrots (anthocyanin - purple black yellow) and Western Carrots (carotene - orange yellow red white)

Morphological characteristics lead to a division of the cultivated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) into two botanical varieties: var. atrorubens and var. sativus (Small 1978).

Distinguishing morphological features of eastern and western carrots (Heywood 1982)

Eastern/Asiatic types  - (var altorubens) with purple, black or yellow anthocyanin roots, sometimes yellow/yellowish orange,  roots often branched, with pubescent leaves giving a grey green appearance and slightly dissected, and a tendency for early flowering, often in the first year. The centre of diversity and origin of Eastern cultivated carrots is quite well established and probably commenced in the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region (Kashmir-Afghanistan) and around Turkestan. (Vavilov and Heywood) In the 1920's and 30′s Vavilov, the Russian biologist and his team were doing research in the context of the improvement of cultivated plants in the service of Soviet Agriculture. They discovered species of volunteer and hybrid carrots in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Their appearance differs from wild carrots under the western climate : their roots are meatier, bear little ramifications and most of all, their colour ranges from purple and pink to orangey yellow.

Purple carrot, with a yellow variant,  then spread to the Mediterranean and Western Europe where they responded well to cultivation and selection.  Pigmentation of eastern carrots is caused by the water soluble anthocyanin which upon cooking gives the liquid a brownish purple colour.  (purple carrot page here) (black carrot page here) (white carrot here) (yellow here)

Western carrot types  - (var sativus) with yellow, orange or red, occasionally white carotenoid roots which are unbranched; they are also distinguished by less pubescent bright yellowish green slightly hairy leaves which are strongly dissected, and less tendency to bolt without extended exposure to low temperatures.

The centre for diversity for the western carrot is the Anatolian region of Asia Minor (Turkey). and Iran. (Vavilov and Heywood)

These reflect cultivation in the Asia Minor/ Mediterranean basin (Turkey) and temperate Europe and can probably be classed as a secondary centre of origin. The majority of modern commercial cultivars belong to this group.   The yellow/orange colour of western carrots is caused by the plastid-bounded pigment carotenoids, carotene and xanthophyll. White carrots contain only traces of pigment, mainly carotene and xanthophyll. (Ladizinsky)

The combination of leaf and root differences between eastern and western carrots suggest that western carrots were not selected directly from eastern, but rather hybrids between early Mediterranean carrots, white rooted carrots and wild carrots, or mutations.

There is some evidence that hybridisation did not play an essential part of the genesis of the cultivated carrot and that there is strong reason to believe that mutation followed by selection was the main factor. (Banga 1963)


Some say that eastern carrot gave rise to the western carrot, although the intermediate stages are far from clear, and this is highly improbable as Eastern carrots contain no carotene, and there is no red carrot variety evidenced in Afghanistan.   It is suggested that crosses between the Eastern and Western carrots (and perhaps Wild forms) in the regions of Asia Minor where Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean meet, led to the formation of the orange rooted carrot sub species.   Turkey is often cited as the birthplace of the hybrids (or mutations) of the two groups.  As is the case today, spontaneous hybridisation between wild and cultivated carrots is quite frequent and natural.

The evolution of the orange carrot is confusing because the colour cited by various authors as either orange or yellow are not always reliable. The latest genetic research shows conclusively that orange carrot was developed from yellow, domesticated varieties. It is interesting that the genetic research from the 21st century also provides support for Banga’s (1957b) hypothesis that orange root was selected out of yellow, domesticated carrots. This theory was put forward without the benefit of modern genetic techniques.

(Source: Iorizzo, Simon and others - Genetic Structure and Domestication of Carrot( daucus carota subsp. sativus) (apiaceae) - American Journal of Botany 100(5): 930–938. 2013.)


Did the Dutch "Invent" Orange Carrots to honour the House of Orange?

It is not true they specifically developed the orange for the royal family - The closest to the truth is that the Dutch adopted orange as its the national colour and then added orange carrots to the list of items “dedicated” to the royal family. The orange carrot came first - the Royal family dedication second. In fact the Principality of Orange took its name not from the fruit, but from a Roman-Celtic settlement on the site which was founded in 36 or 35 BC and was named Arausio).

Dutch Origin - The orange cultivars "Early Horn" and "Long Orange" originated in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. (Banga and Simon) and form the basis of many modern orange varieties.  Oddly white roots began to appear in paintings about the same time, perhaps implying that there had been little attempt by western Europeans to domesticate the wild, white rooted carrot until Moorish invaders came along with their coloured roots.  Below - diagram created by Otto Banga in 1963 to attempt to dhow in simple graphical form, the origins of orange carrots in Europe.

A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange.Dutch Horn carrots Though the development and stabilisation of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank King William I as a tribute to independence from Spain.  Dr T Fernie (Herbal Simples1875) reported  -  "The Dutch Government had no love for the House of Orange: and many a grave burgomaster went so far as to banish from his garden the Orange lily, and Marigold; also the sale of Oranges and Carrots was prohibited in the markets on account of their aristocratic colour."

Image right from Gardening for Profit, Peter Henderson 1867. Considered one of the earliest works on market gardening, this book sold over 150,000 copies when first printed.

There have been numerous arguments that the depiction of orange carrots in art works of the period proves that this was their first appearance. Art works alone are not considered to be good enough evidence as the colours used are not always true to type, and artists use colour effects in arranging their subjects. So in paintings, the differences between yellow and orange roots could be due to artistic features rather than to differences between cultivars. One can probably say with certainty that orange varieties were grown in the Netherlands at this time but this does not prove their origin in that locality. (Brandenberg)  Also, well before this time, there are clearly visible orange rooted carrots appearing in an ad 512 manuscript, an 11th century document, 14th century scripts and wall paintings in Italy in 1517. (see below) Also illustrations of various carrot colours appeared in many illuminated manuscripts, some of the surviving examples are shown here in a separate Museum page  - ancient manuscripts.

We know that the orange carrot took hold in Holland in the 16th century, it is argued, because of Dutch nationalism.  It is said, without documentary evidence, that the orange carrot was specifically developed to honour William of Orange and his Royal House, because the orange variety was developed during his reign. It is a myth that has been erroneously repeated so often that many people (including some historians!) believe it to be true. The closest to the truth is that the Dutch adopted orange as its the national colour and then added orange carrots to the list of items “dedicated” to the royal family. The orange carrot came first - the Royal family dedication second.

In fact the Principality of Orange took its name not from the fruit, but from a Roman-Celtic settlement on the site which was founded in 36 or 35 BC and was named Arausio, after a Celtic water god; however, the name may have been slightly altered, and the town associated with the colour, because it was on the route by which quantities of oranges were brought from southern ports such as Marseilles to northern France.) - source Bunson, Matthew (1995). A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-19-510233-9.

There is an ancient manuscript dated ad 512 images (new page) which shows the first clear depictions of an orange rooted carrot, its subsequent history is lost in time. It could be a species which became extinct, or dormant, only to appear again in mutants found in the 16th century.

Red and yellow carrots started to appear in Europe in the 13th century and it is now known, from modern genetic research, that orange carrots were developed from those yellow varieties.

From the middle of the 16th century various carrot colours started to appear in art works, principally from the Dutch and Flemish regions, with paintings depicting market and kitchen scenes and including orange and other carrot colours.

It was probably the Dutch who developed the orange carrot in the 16th  century, as we now know from yellow varieties. Holland was the leading nation when it came to agricultural science at this time. As we now know from modern genetics it would take several decades to stabilise a new plant variety.

There is no documentary evidence that the Dutch "invented" orange carrots to honour their Royal Family, the House of orange. A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the development and stabilisation of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it!

As far as The Carrot Museum is concerned the Dutch developed and stabilised the orange carrot, in the 16th century. Subsequently the Dutch people adopted the colour orange and orange carrots as their national vegetable. There is no written evidence that this was also to honour their Royal Family. The point is that the orange carrot came first, Dutch Nationalism second. In fact the Principality of Orange took its name not from the fruit, but from a Roman-Celtic settlement on the site which was founded in 36 or 35 BC and was named Arausio, after a Celtic water god; however, the name may have been slightly altered, and the town associated with the colour, because it was on the route by which quantities of oranges were brought from southern ports such as Marseilles to northern France.) - source Bunson, Matthew (1995). A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-19-510233-9.

In many Dutch paintings of the period the support for the House of Orange is expressed via a piece of cloth, for example you will see a ribbon around the male costume and/or an orange banner. It is also expressed via small bundles of orange (and other colours) carrots prominently displayed in the centre of paintings or more often in an obscure position, depending on the level of support for the House of Orange.  The term used for this support was "orangism" - There is an old Dutch saying to express orangism goes as following: Orange in the heart, said the farmer, and he put one yellow carrot (eene gele peen) on his hat.

To this day, many in the Netherlands genuinely like to believe that orange carrots were originally grown specifically as a tribute to the House of Orange. No matter how many times it is repeated and passed on through the generations it still remains pure folklore!!

(A bit of Dutch history - By 1785, the revolutionary and republican organisation, known as the Patriots were a significant political and military force in Holland. On September 15, 1785, William left the Hague, the seat of his garrison command as Stadholder, and went to his rural military stronghold of Nijmegen where most of his army was stationed. Despite this strategic gain by William, the Patriots interpreted his retreat as a victory since they now had effective control of the nation's capital. Basking in triumph, the Patriots proceeded to humiliate the House of Orange in every conceivable way. They banned the colour orange and hurled charges of treason at the Stadholder every day. They even went so far as to decree that CARROTS could not be displayed in the marketplace unless only the green tops were visible. Significantly, though, the Patriots never moved to strip the Prince of his garrison command, an inaction filled with prophecy. source and more detail here.)


One of the earliest depictions of an orange carrot, in works of art - Pieter Aertsen Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha 1553 (oil on panel, Height: 126 cm (49.6 in). Width: 200 cm (78.7 in, location Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Possibly variety Rouge Longue sans coeur (Long Red Coreless)

Pieter Aertsen Carrots in Art

A few more examples of the depiction of coloured carrots in the 16th/17thC (click to see larger images - see more art works here)
Beuckelaer 1564 Beuckelaer 1566 Cotan 1602 Cotan 1602

Summarised Timeline of Cultivated Carrot (documentary evidence)

Time Period

Location

Colour

Pre-900s

Afghanistan and vicinity

Purple and yellow

900s

Iran and northern Arabia

Purple, Red and yellow

1000s

Syria and North Africa

Purple, Red and yellow

1100s

Spain

Purple and yellow

1200s

Italy and China

Purple and red

1300s

France, Germany, The Netherlands

Red, Yellow & White

1400s

England

Red & white

1500's Northern Europe Orange, Yellow & Red

1600s

Japan

Purple and yellow

1600s

North America

Orange and white

1700s

Japan

Orange and Red

Sources - Rubatzsky and Banga. Also Carrot Museum's Curator research material Reference material is here.

Notes: Red was often confused with purple.  Orange carrots may have been around well before 1100 - see above. The above listing is a "best guess" as there is much conflicting evidence.

Carrots were also probably White throughout these periods, often confused with Parsnips (also white). There was (and still is!) enormous confusion when trying to sort out the individual histories of carrots and parsnips. The Latin name for the parsnip genus is thought to come from, meaning "food". This would further explain the historical confusion of the two vegetables, as well as offer a testament to how important they both were in the ancient diet.


The major sources of reference works quoted above are given below:

A complete list of reference material is listed on a separate page - here

The latest:

Rong et al.: New insights into domestication of carrot from root transcriptome analyses. BMC Genomics 2014 15:895.

Iorizzo et al Genetic Structure and Domestication of Carrot (Daucus Carota Subsp. sativus)Apiaceae. American Journal of Botany 100(5): 930–938. 2013.

Stolarczyk, J. , and J. Janick . 2011 . Carrot: History and iconography. Chronica Horticulturae 51 : 13 – 18 . (this one written by the Carrot Museum Curator)


Earlier works:

Vilmorin , M. 1859 . L’hérédité dans les végétaux. In M. Vilmorin [ed.], Notice sur l’amelioration des plantes par la semis, 5–29. Librairie Agricole, Paris, France.

Thellung , A. 1927 . Die Abstammung der Gartenmöhre ( Daucus carota subsp. sativus ) und der Gartenrettichs ( Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus ). Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis ( Beiheft [supplement] 46 ): 1 – 7 .

O Banga, 
1957 The development of the original European carrot material.

1957 (b) Origin of the European cultivated carrot.
1963. Main types of the western carotene carrot and their origin.
1963: Origin and distribution of the western cultivated carrot.

E Small A numerical taxonomy of the Daucus Carota Complex 1978

V H Heywood - Relationship and Evolution in the Daucus Carota Complex - 1983

NI Vavilov 1926 Studies in the Origin of cultivated plants

Agricultural Afghanistan 1924  NI Vavilov and DD BukinichVavilov 1924

J Smarrt & N W Simmonds Evolution of Crop Plants  1976

W A. Brandenburg Possible relationships between wild and cultivated carrots (Daucus carota L.) in the Netherlands 1981
Use of Paintings from the 16th to 19th Centuries to Study the History of Domesticated Plants 1986

V I Mackevic,. The carrot of Afghanistan. 1929

P W Simon Carrots and Related Umbelliferae 1999 (also various USDA publications authored by  PW Simon)

Carrot, Daucus carota L. In "Genetic Improvement of Vegetable Crops", (ed. G. Kalloo, B.O. Bergh), Pergamon Press, Oxford, U.K., pp. 479-484 (1993).

The manuscript is known as the Vienna Dioscurides, or Dioscurides Codex Vindobonensis Kew Gardens Library

D R. Brothwell, P Brothwell Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples 1968 ISBN 0801857406, 9780801857409

 Plant Evolution Under Domestication 1998SBN 0412822105, 9780412822100

Soufflet-Freslon V1, Jourdan M, Clotault J, Huet S, Briard M, Peltier D, Geoffriau E.  Functional gene polymorphism to reveal species history: the case of the CRTISO gene in cultivated carrots. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23940644

Full reference material is here.


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