Many sources hold that it is a fact that the original variety of carrot, from which our modern orange carrots derived, was purple. However, all we can really say is that the first carrot was probably purple. When and how carrots were first used, or consumed, by humans cannot really be known for sure. Remember that many vegetables may have been consumed, or even cultivated since prehistoric times, or at least since a time when few written records exist. So, when you read that it is a fact that the very first carrots were purple, or any such fact about any vegetable, view it with skepticism. All we can say is that we are fairly certain the first carrots were purple.
They actually belong to the Umbelliferae family, which also includes parsnips, parsley, fennel, and dill. Many of the early writings that have been assumed to refer to carrots may have, in fact, been referring to the parsnip.
There is archaeological evidence of carrot seeds associated with human camps dating back to 3000 B.C.E. This would mean that our human ancestors, at least, were gathering carrot seeds and using them for some purpose, which was perhaps even medicinal (early Roman uses of the carrot were medicinal). When they were first cultivated is debatable but the earliest we could conjecture would be over 5,000 years ago. However, the first evidence of carrot cultivation that is widely accepted comes from Afghanistan and Iran (Mesopotamia) in the tenth century. 1
Although most of us only know the orange kind, there are over a hundred varieties of carrots of different sizes and color, such as while, yellow, red, and, of course, purple (sometimes called maroon).
The earliest cultivated varieties stayed purple a very long time. However, they were only purple on the outside. They were actually orange or orange-yellow on the inside. White, yellow, red, green, and black varieties appeared later, but the orange carrot didn’t actually come about until the 1500’s. It was purposely bred in Holland, purportedly to match the color of the Dutch Royal House of Orange. In the Seventeenth century, the Dutch became the principal European producers of carrots, and subsequently, all our modern varieties come from the Dutch ones, which included Early Half Long, Late Half Long, Scarlet and Long Orange.
Now, you might be thinking, purple carrots sound cool! Well, they do, and there is a lot of vogue, currently, concerning carrots of various colors. However, when you cooked purple carrots, you ended up with an unappealing brown color, due to the effect of heat on the pigments. Also, early carrots were tough and Fibrous. Orange carrots had a nicer, more crunchy texture, and they retained their color when cooked.
As well, the new breeds were developed to suit the shorter growing season. From the Long Orange variety came several others that were meant to grow as long as possible into the winters, including Long Stump Winter, Flanders, Flakkee, St. Valery, Bauer’s Kieler Rote, and Meaux or Tendersweet. The last two were the basis of the carrot breeding progam in the U.S. beginning in the 1940’s. This means that our modern orange carrot may be only one generation removed from the Long Orangecultivar. 2
- Kole, Chittaranjan. Vegetables (Genome Mapping and Molecular Breeding in Plants). Berlin: Springer, 2007.
- Singh, Ram J. Genetic Resources, Chromosome Engineering, and Crop Improvement. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007.