Rain came last night! Yippee! We so desperately need it. And it's supposed to stick around through the weekend. That means that I'm indoors rather than out in the garden. Yesterday was a full day out there though, prepping beds for spring planting, emptying and refilling compost bins, and planting carrot seeds. Which brings me to today's time waster, uh, research.
Let me backtrack a bit here, last fall I planted carrots for the first time and in December, much to my surprise, I started harvesting some. Oh boy, nothing like a little success to push me over the edge. When it came time to order seeds for this year I just had to have some more carrots, not just any carrots, purple carrots, and red carrots, and yellow and white ones as well! Specifically, Cosmic Purple, Atomic Red, Amarillo Yellow, and Lunar White. That's what I sowed yesterday, one row of each. And the orange ones (Scarlet Nantes) still have a place in the garden as well, two rows were sown a month ago.
So, now that I've done the planting, it's time to read up a bit (bassackwards as usual). Well, I did know a couple of things beforehand, carrots do not like soil that is too fertile, too much nitrogen makes for hairy roots. So yesterday's planting went into a spot that had not been amended after the previous planting. I dug in a very very light sprinkle of hardwood ash (oak and almond), which raises soil pH (carrots don't like acid soil) and is a good source of potassium (makes for good roots). Doing that is really just an experiment on my part, I had read about it somewhere recently.
What I've been reading about today is history and varieties. The first cultivated carrots were not orange, those didn't come about until the late 1600's in Holland. Carrots started out white, yellow, and violet. Afghanistan is believed to be the home of the original yellow and violet carrots, while the white carrot is native to Europe. I've read 2 different accounts about the genetic origins of orange carrots. One story is that it was mutant yellow carrot that was selected and then crossbred with red varieties. The other is that it was a yellow and violet cross. In any case, the orange color was pursued by the Dutch in honor of the royal House of Orange. For lots more carrot history you should check out (I'm not kidding) the Carrot Museum.
For information about heirloom varieties I turned to my favorite books about heirloom vegetables, both by William Woys Weaver, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening and 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From. Violet carrots are discussed in both books. He describes two basic types of violet carrots. One having a deep purple color that goes from skin to core, the core being bright yellow. The other is a beet color with silvery-gray leaves. The flavor of both is not like a modern carrot, being "slightly resinous, as though flavored with a hint of juniper or rosemary. Lemon and honey amplify this taste, and when the carrots are shredded and prepared in salads with citrons, pomegranates, and other acidic fruits, the flavors work together to complement fish dishes and white wines." Sounds interesting to me, but I haven't been able to track down any seeds. Although, there are a couple of listings in the online index for the 2009 Seed Saver's Exchange yearbook (which I haven't received yet!) which are possibilities. There are 3 modern purple carrots that are widely available, Purple Haze (an F1), Purple Dragon, and Cosmic Purple. So far as I can tell, the modern varieties have been developed with the modern palate in mind, namely, sweeter and without the interesting resinous qualities. The heirloom violet carrots, if allowed to bloom, have beautiful pink to violet flowers. I haven't read anywhere what color flowers the modern varieties have.
Kuttiger Ruebli (minus a couple of umlauts), is an old landrace white carrot that Mr. Weaver talks about in 100 Vegetables. The name translates as "little turnip carrot of Kuttigen". The color of this carrot ranges from white to parchment to pale yellow, the white being the favored color. There is a listing in the 2009 SSE yearbook for a Blanch de Kuttigen carrot. I'm not so sure about trying this particular carrot since it is described in the book as rarely being little (a foot long and fat like a turnip!), although it's supposed to remain sweet and crisp even when large. Perhaps if I picked them young.....
Another white carrot is described in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, the White Belgian Carrot. This carrot was developed by Henry Vilmorin in the early 19th century from a wild white carrot. This is a truly huge carrot, growing up to 28 inches long. Yikes, more than I want to deal with, but if you are interested you can get the seeds from Baker Creek.
Finally, there is an orange carrot included in the collection. Early Horn Carrot is a Dutch variety developed in the 18th century. Not a huge carrot, being about 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. It was popular for a very long time in America but seems to be extremely rare today. I found a listing for Early Scarlet Horn in the 2009 SSE yearbook index, that's as close a match as I could find. Thomas Etty (EU only) lists Early Scarlet Horn carrots and suggests that the name has been synonymous with Early Horn since the 19th century.
One more carrot that is mention in passing in 100 Vegetables is Long Red Surrey. There's a photograph of it in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening where it is described as being basically identical to Saint Valery (for which Baker Creek sent me free seeds). I couldn't find any other information about it other than in the Thomas Etty online catalog where it is listed synonymously with Saint Valery and 2 other carrots. Regardless of names, it is an heirloom that is considered "worthy of cultivation".
I must also add, Mr. Weaver thinks that old coffee grounds are the perfect fertilizer for carrots. Hmm, just may have to try that next time. He also talks about a technique for seed saving in cold winter climates.
So, I've not yet tracked down any heirloom varieties of yellow or red carrots. There must be some, somewhere... Anyone have any leads?
Oh, and if you were wondering about the nutritional qualities of the various carrots, check out this site.
And, yet one more thing, if you haven't figured it out yet, if you're interested in heirloom vegetables then you really must get your hands on Mr. Weaver's books. I've barely touched on the information that he has to offer.