A Brief History of Food: The Carrot
Updated: Jan 5
The wild carrot (Daucus carota) is a root vegetable now native in Europe and southwestern Asia. It most likely originated in Persia, regions of which form the modern countries of Iran and Afghanistan. The first mention of the carrot in classical sources occurs during the 1st century AD, where the Romans ate a root vegetable called pastinaca, which may have been either the wild carrot or the closely related parsnip. The plant was introduced into Spain by the Moors during the 8th century AD, and by the 10th century AD, the carrot had spread to the rest of Europe and appeared in such locations as West Asia and India. Cultivated carrots eventually appeared in China in the 14th century, and in Japan in the 18th century.
The domesticated form, Daucus carota sativus, was first cultivated for its leaves and seeds. Some close relatives of the carrot, such as parsley, fennel, dill and cumin, are still grown purely for their leaves and seeds. Although the carrot’s greens are sometimes consumed, today it is the greatly enlarged, more palatable taproot that is most commonly eaten. Indeed, over the centuries the wild carrot was selectively bred to lessen its bitterness, increase its sweetness and reduce the woody texture of its taproot.
The taproots of the “original” carrots were purple, but black, red, white, yellow and orange cultivars exist. Temple drawings from Egypt show a plant believed to be a purple carrot dating back to 2,000 BC. By the 12th century the Arab agriculturist Ibn al-‘Awwam described both red and yellow carrots being cultivated in Andalusia, Spain.
Although it is the familiar orange carrot that still dominates there is a small but developing trend to re-introduce its purple forebear to a more mainstream audience. Outwardly purple carrots, still orange on the inside, were sold in British stores beginning in 2002, since when white and yellow varieties have joined them.
1. According to the World Carrot Museum website, it was Galen, the Greek physician, writer and philosopher at the court of Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd-century AD, who named the wild carrot Daucus pastinaca. By adding the name Daucus, Galen was distinguishing the carrot from the parsnip, though confusion remained steadfast until botanist Linnaeus set the record straight in the 18th-century with his system of plant classification.
2. World Carrot Museum, "History of Carrots", retrieved July 29th, 2020.