Thursday, February 5, 2009

Crazy For Colorful Carrots

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.


  1. thanks for the info in this great post. have you been to baker creek heirloom seeds. they have lots of great heirloom carrots.

  2. I love the history of the vegetables. I recently downloaded some old gardening books and an old vegetable cookbook from the Gutenburg library. They are such fun to read.

  3. Hi flowrgirl1, I ordered a fair amount from Baker Creek this year, including the Lunar White and Amarillo carrots. They are one of my favorite seed sources.

    Daphne! That looks like an amazing library! Wow, I could/will really spend some time there. I am really taken with vegetables and fruit with a history. I love that feeling of a connection with the past. It's such a shame that so many have been lost. I'm not against new varieties though, what's new today will be an heirloom someday, if we choose to grow it.

  4. Thanks Michelle, because I must admit that I knew aboslutely nothing about carrots and hadn't realised that there were different coloured ones.

  5. Hi Michelle--my carrots in my cold frame didn't do all that well. I'm not sure why, but I suspect either not enough light or water. I'm going to do on a post on the harvest this weekend to wrap it up.

    However, it hasn't stopped me from being excited about planting carrots in this year's garden. I think I got the St Valery's too (if I remember right).

    Can't wait to see all your lovely produce this year!

  6. Hi Jan and Steve, I've seen an occasional multi-colored bunch of carrots at the farmer's market but never really paid much attention. Funny how much more interested I get when I want to grow something myself!

    Hi Susan, that's a shame about your carrots :( I have no experience with cold frames, or carrots really. Am I crazy? One successful carrot harvest and I plunge right in... Ah well, it's not like I'm going to starve if they don't do well. Let's just have fun and see how we do this year!

  7. Hi Michelle

    Carrot Museum calling, there is a full list of good seed suppliers in the us here:

    Do try the black carrots for something totally different.

    As for carrot history, that is being totally re-written, partly because I have discovered orange around in ad 512!! also the history is much disputed am I am putting together the arguments.

    Archeology evidence is scanty and open to opinion.

    Basically the consensus is that domestic carrots are a different species to wild. Purple Hybrids appeared in the near East (Iran/Turkey area) then an orange developed from that.

    Read more in a few weeks at a carrot museum near you!

    ps also there are orange rooted blacks and white rooted.

  8. You are amazing Michelle! Great post that I now will mark as 'remember this', it was very interesting. I popped over to the museum and I think I will take a tour in there later tonight. It sound a bit CRAZY but I'm sure I gonna love it!

    Have a great Friday evening/ Tyra

  9. Hi John, thanks for the wonderful comment! I will return to the museum to read your updated history. I really didn't want to go into the details of carrot history (far too much confusion out there) which is why I directed readers to the museum. Your site is the most comprehensive and authoritative that I found in my carrot ramblings.

    Mr. Weaver mentions seeing an orange carrot in the codex of Dioskorides from Constantinople A.D.500-511. He seems to think that it proves the Romans had an orange carrot that became extinct. Anyway, the history of carrots is a can-o-worms that is too big for me to deal with here.

    All this history reading has motivated me to find heirloom varieties, many of which seem to be shockingly scarce. I would love to try a Spanish Black carrot, but can find no US seed source. The search continues...

  10. Hi Tyra, Who would of thought that carrots could be so interesting! I always took those orange things that I bought at the grocery completely for granted.

  11. Michelle - great history lesson! Who would have guessed that carrots had such a unique background...sounds like a jeporady question in the making to me.

  12. Michelle, your site is becoming quite dangerous for me to visit.(LOL) You are going to have me trying all kinds of new veggies. I'm curious "Do the carrot colors remain when cooked?"

  13. Hi Ang, You know, you may be in serious danger of becoming a foodie if you grow all these strange new veggies! ;)

    I've read that the purple carrots turn brown when cooked, but light cooking retains the color. Maybe those should be reserved for salads! I'm not sure about the others, but I think they do keep their colors. Guess I'll find out if I manage to grow them!

  14. Hello Michelle,

    I have also been hunting down the elusive Spanish Black carrot and have found no U.S. seed sources.

    Amishland Heirloom Seeds had Purple Pakistani carrots and purple-red ones called "Kintocki" but lost them to rabbits...perhaps next year they will have more.

    Thomas Etty Esq. sells Spanish Black but of course they are a UK seed company.

    Johnny's is selling an (F1)"Purple Rain" and Hirts has the same thing listed as "Black Night" and they are also available through If you find a source for Spanish Black I would be really interested in knowing.

    Great post, great blog,


  15. Mike, thank you! If I find some Spanish Black seeds I'll let you know. And if you find them first please share the info too. One would hope that Amishland had some seeds in reserve so they can grow them out again! I've visited your blog a couple of times and I must say I admire the challenge you and your wife have taken on (and your blog too). Best of luck!

  16. Hi Michelle, you and your followers can contact me through my email also

    I am a carrot breeder and can help you with seeds of multi-colored carrots.

    We have crossed several varieties, none which are sold anywhere in the US, because we started with seed from the repositories of the US givernment. They are from other countries, including Japan, Vietnam, France, India, Africa and others.

    We breed for heat and drought tolerance- color is less important. But they range from white to purple to yellow to red, and several shades inbetween, with some carrots having several different colors on the same carrot.

    This is experimental seed- it is not stable yet. But they produce pretty well, with surprisingly few recessives, at least not yet.

    I will be glad to sell this seed, which is still bearded, for $5.00 a packet. It is what we call 1f seed, as opposed to F1, the first gen X. It is open pollinated and vigorous.

    Lastly, I too, am still trying to get Spanish Black. The guy in the UK , Thomas Etty, is the only one who has it, and he won't return my emails.

    Rick Machado
    Machado Farms


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