Now in Your Grocery Store: Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

.Purple carrots are relatively new to our tables here in North America. But they actually have a very long history in the rest of the world. Like the ubiquitous orange carrots we already know, they are high in beta-carotene and vitamin A. The purple colour comes from anthocyanins, the same phytochemicals that give blueberries and red cabbage their colour.

Purple carrots are noted for their role in weight loss. They are also high in fiber, and so are good for your heart health. The antioxidants in purple carrots may also help to prevent heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Are purple carrots genetically modified? Learn the history of carrots and their rainbow of colours. | #24CarrotDiet | GMO | purple carrot juice
Purple carrots are new to our markets, but they have a long history in the world

 

Where Do Carrots Come From?

Carrots originated in the Middle East about 5000 years ago. They first grew in Persia, which today is parts of Iran and Afghanistan. Early carrots grew wild, just like Queen Anne’s Lace (our wild carrot) does in many places today. Many of these wild vegetables were purple carrots.

People once used just the leaves and seeds of carrots. The roots were bitter and woody, and not nearly as substantial as today’s carrots. But carrot plants were desirable. As carrots spread throughout Arabia, Africa, and Asia, people began to cross different varieties with one another. This breeding improved upon the wild form and eventually gave us the sweet, crunchy root that we know today.

The ancient Egyptians prized purple carrots so much that they buried their Pharaohs with them. Carrots travelled from Egypt to Greece, and then to Rome. Carrots first appear in writing in Greece. Athenaeus wrote about them around 200 C.E.

Our word “carrot” ultimately comes from the Greek καρωτόν (karōton,) which itself derives from the Indo-European root *ker -, “horn.” So the name we’ve inherited for this vegetable describes its shape. The earliest carrots often branched into two or more forks. So they may even have looked like a pair of horns.

Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

No, purple carrots are not genetically modified. In fact, naturally purple carrots are the earliest varieties of this root vegetable. They grew wild before people started to domesticate them.

Orange carrots didn’t exist in the beginning. But there were yellow carrots, in addition to the purple carrots. White and red carrots came along a bit later. All these colours have been growing consistently, somewhere in the world, since about the Middle Ages. The orange vegetable we eat today appeared fairly recently in the history of carrots.

Purple carrots were grown in Persia, Arabia, and North Africa, at least as far back as the 900s. They spread to Spain in the 12th century, and to Italy and China in the 13th century. By the 17th century, purple carrots had reached Japan as well.

Purple carrots have been popular in parts of Europe for years, but they are only beginning to show up in North America. You should be able to find purple carrots at some farmers markets, and seeds for growing purple carrots are available from most seed catalogues and nurseries. As more consumers become familiar with purple carrots, this will create a demand for the vegetable. We will begin to see purple carrots in grocery stores as that demand influences growers for the organic produce market and then later the conventional vegetable market.

 

 

Are Carrots Genetically Modified to Be Orange?

I was watching a video about purple carrots today, and the narrator said that the early purple and yellow carrots were genetically modified to make them orange. This is simply not true.

The World Health Organization definition of genetic modification says that it happens when “the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” The first genetically modified organisms were produced in the early 1970’s. The first genetically modified food to receive approval for sale was the Flavr Savr tomato, in the United States during the 1990s.

Orange carrots were first seen around the 16th or 17th centuries, when most Europeans were eating white, yellow, or purple carrots. Some combination of domestication and natural selection led to an orange carrot, probably as an improvement on the yellow carrot. This new carrot became popular in Holland because of its colour. Dutch farmers grew it in honour of William of Orange, and are responsible for stabilizing the cultivar over the next century or so.

Now the orange carrot is the one much of the world thinks of whenever we say, “carrot.” As this happened centuries before the advent of genetic modification, it’s impossible that the first orange carrots were genetically modified.

Do Purple Carrots Taste Different?

In the video above, personal chef Pat Mulvey says she can taste a subtle difference between carrots of different colours. According to her, the darker carrots have more flavour, while the lighter coloured carrots have a more subtle taste. I’m not sure most of us would be able to notice the difference.

I have grown purple carrots alongside red carrots, orange carrots, and even yellow and white ones. I didn’t find any significant difference in the taste of the carrots, whether we ate them raw or cooked. Purple carrots taste pretty much the same as the orange ones you’ve been eating all your life. Though of course, if you’re buying them from your local farmers market carrots of any colour will taste more fresh than grocery store carrots!

Are Carrots the Only Purple Root Vegetable?

Purple carrots are not the only root vegetables that grow in that particular hue. There are a number of other purple root vegetables, including purple sweet potatoes and a few purple varieties of the usually white potato. There are also purple radishes and purple kohlrabi. And a type of purple yam popular in the Philippines, ube, currently has a huge presence on Instagram.

Growing Purple Carrots in Your Garden

There are several different varieties of purple carrots that you can grow in your garden. A number of other carrot cultivars also exist in hues of white, yellow, red, orange, and even purple so dark it looks black.

Many of the newer coloured carrot varieties have fun names, often inspired by an outer space theme. We have experimented with a mix of carrots that includes ‘Lunar White,’ ‘Solar Yellow,’ ‘Cosmic Purple,’ and ‘Atomic Red’ varieties. These mixes are often sold as “Kaleidoscope Carrots” or “Rainbow Carrots.”

Some purple carrots are purple all the way through. Others are purple carrots, orange inside. There are even purple carrots that are white or pale purple inside. If you have a preference for one or the other of these types, check before you choose your purple carrot seeds. Most seed catalogues will show an image of the cut carrot, or will mention if the core of the carrot is orange or white instead of purple.

 

 

Pure Purple Carrots

  • Black Nebula’ Carrot: Grows very dark purple carrots that look almost tie-dyed when cut. This variety has very high levels of anthocyanins, and retains its colour when cooked. If you juice this carrot and then add a little lemon, the juice will turn bright pink. This rare Imperator type carrot is sometimes used to make purple dye. The purple carrots grow quite long, but one listing suggests they are best picked when only 10 cm (4”) long. The leaves and flowers of these purple carrots are tinged with purple. How cool is that? Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Deep Purple’ Carrot: This is one of the only pure purple carrots available. The colour is very dark, almost black, and doesn’t generally fade with cooking. This Imperator type carrot grows to a length of about 17-20cm (7-8”) but some catalogue listings say they can grow to almost twice that length. This is a hybrid variety. Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Gniff’ Carrot: These short purple carrots are extremely slow to grow. They are a very rare landrace from Switzerland with an amethyst purple exterior and a white to violet core. The carrots are very striking when cut lengthwise. They only grow to about 10 cm (4”) long, and are traditionally used for pickling in vinegar and olive oil. Days to maturity: 130–140.

Purple Carrots with Orange Inside

  • Cosmic Purple’ Carrot: This is a Danvers type carrot, meaning it’s a tapered carrot about 15-20 cm (6-7”) long. Fiber in carrots of the Danvers type is apparently high, and the carrots are good for longer storage. Cosmic Purple carrots were developed by Dr. Philipp Simon and the USDA Agricultural Research Service team in Madison, Wisconsin. The carrots have an orange core. Their purple colour doesn’t fade when cooked. Days to maturity: 60.

  • Purple Dragon’ Carrot: This is another Danvers carrot. Purple dragon carrots are purple on the outside, with a core that is yellow to orange in colour. Their taste is supposed to be slightly spicy. These purple carrots are open pollinated. Days to maturity: 70-75.

  • Purple Haze’ Carrot: This hybrid carrot was an All-American Selection winner in 2006. It grows purple carrots, orange inside. These Imperator type carrots are 25-30cm (10-12″) long, tapering to a point. The colours are brilliant when the carrots are raw, but the purple fades when cooked. Days to maturity: 70.

  • Other purple carrots include ‘Beta-Sweet,’ ‘Black Spanish,’ ‘Purple 68, ‘Purple Dutch,’ and ‘Purple Elite’.

 

 

 

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Purple carrots are loaded with carotene and anthocyanin
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This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Food History: Meet the Once-Famous Fruit that Survived Near Extinction

The Montreal melon is fairly unknown today, even in Montreal. But once it was a popular culinary delicacy. Upscale hotel restaurants served the melon alongside champagne and beluga caviar. At the beginning of the 20th century, Montreal market melon sold for upwards of $1 a slice. At the time, that was about twice the price of a full-course meal.

Loss of Crop Diversity in the 20th Century

How does a fruit as sought after as the Montreal market melon end up in obscurity? Actually, there are many foods that have gone this way. Did you know that the world has lost 75% of all our food crops in the last 50 years?

This mass extinction of food crops is the result of changes in human society. Urbanization, globalization, even scientists trying to fight world hunger, have all contributed to the loss. In today’s food market, uniformity, familiarity and appearance take precedence. Shelf life, cost, and ease of transport are major considerations. Variety, and even flavour, take a back seat to these other factors.

The result is more farmers planting the same variety of a given crop. For example, since restaurants like McDonald’s have long favoured russet Burbank potatoes for making French fries, more farmers grow this type of potato. But what about the rest of the 200 or so varieties of North American potatoes? If most farmers want to grow the crops that are in high demand, they are going to be leaving a lot of other varieties by the wayside.

That’s pretty much what happened to the Montreal melon. People were once willing to pay a high price for the precious fruit because they couldn’t grow the melon. But eventually, the market shifted towards a single kind of muskmelon. The orange-fleshed cantaloupe became the standard, and farmers eventually stopped growing Montreal’s market melon altogether.

 

Montreal melon: The caviar of cantaloupe
The Montreal melon was a delicacy on par with champagne and caviar

 

The Caviar of Cantaloupe

BuzzFeed has called the Montreal market melon “the caviar of cantaloupe,” and rightly so! You couldn’t get this rare and exotic fruit just anywhere: it was difficult to grow and didn’t stand up to transport over long distances. But in Montreal, Boston, and New York City, diners in the best restaurants could feast on a juicy slice of this green-fleshed melon if they were willing to pay the price.

Farmers grew the melons on the slopes of Mount Royal and shipped them to the United States daily. A number of American merchants sold the seed. Most notable among them was Atlee Burpee, who had discovered a specimen at the Ste Anne’s Market in 1880.

 

 

Montreal Melons Didn’t Grow Well in the US

But the Queen of Melons, as some people called the Montreal melon, never did as well in New England as it did in the rich soil of its homeland. Maybe the farmers in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce put more care into growing their melons. After all, each family had their own strain of the Montreal melon. They took pride in growing the biggest, juiciest, and tastiest melons. And boy, did they pamper their crops!

But maybe it’s a bit of a lesson to all gardeners about landraces. Local may just be better, even when it comes to choosing the seeds for our gardens. Not every plant will do well in a given place – even when there’s no obvious reason it shouldn’t.

 

Montreal market melon, from 19th century advertising card
Rendering of the melon, listed as the “new Montreal Nutmeg,” from an 1887 advertising card for Rice’s vegetable seeds
(Image: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Developing a Premium Market Melon

So what does this infamous Montreal melon look like, and where did it come from?

The Montreal market melon is also sometimes called the Montreal muskmelon or the Montreal nutmeg melon. It’s a cross between the green-fleshed nutmeg melon and European cantaloupes. The seeds for these European melons came to the New World with settlers from France in the 17th century. Nobody seems to know when exactly the first Montreal melons appeared. We do know they were around by the end of the 19th century, when cantaloupes and muskmelons became a market crop.

The Montreal melon is a green-fleshed, netted melon with a slightly spicy taste like nutmeg. Grown under the right conditions, it is enormous. Some sources say the melon grows to about 15 – 25 lb. At least one reference speaks of melons as big as 40 lb. Like its European ancestors, the melon has noticeable ribs. Its grey-green skin is also netted, like the salmon-fleshed cantaloupe most North Americans know and love.

 

 

Montreal melons were once the pride of the country. The Burpee Seeds catalogue once described the fruits as “remarkably thick, light green, melting, and of a delicious flavor.” They called it the “handsomest possible melon,” and by 1883 were offering cash prizes to farmers who were able to produce the largest melons. Burpee listed the fruit as the “Montreal Green Nutmeg Melon.”

Atlee Burpee wasn’t the only one singing the praises of the Montreal melon. A USDA farming bulletin published in 1909 called it a “melon of unusual excellence.” In his review of heirloom melon varieties, food historian William Woys Weaver says of the Montreal melon, “It became the most widely grown muskmelon in New England, Canada, and the Upper Midwest, not only because of its large size but because it yielded the best-flavored melons for short-season gardens.”

Near-Extinction of the Montreal Melon

Montreal’s market melon was once grown over acres and acres of farmland between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River. But over the years, urban expansion ate away at the farmland in Montreal.

Cars replaced horses, and all but one of the racetracks that once supplied manure for the heavy-feeding melon crops closed their doors. The Decarie Expressway now cuts through what used to be the farm of one noted melon-growing family. Row upon row of duplexes line streets with names like Old Orchard Avenue, a faint memory of the farms that once dominated the landscape of Montreal’s N.D.G.

Green melons fell out of favour sometime after World War II, and the delicate skin of the Montreal market melon didn’t stand up to transport. Agribusiness favoured crops that were easier to grow and transport. As time went on, only home gardeners were growing Montreal’s market melon.

Even Burpee Seeds dropped the Montreal melon from its catalogue in the 1950s. At one point, the melon was believed to be extinct. Biodiversity was losing ground to agribusiness and the pressures of global climate change.

 

Heirloom gardening: Montreal market melon, developed by crossing traditional French cantaloupes with spicy, green-fleshed nutmeg melons
The Montreal melon is a cross between spicy, green nutmeg melons and traditional French cantaloupes like this Charentais melon
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A Lazarus Species

Luckily, a few seeds for the Montreal market melon were tucked away in a USDA seed repository in Ames, Iowa. In the late 1990s, they were given to scientist and farmer Ken Taylor, a man whom I had the pleasure to know all too briefly while I was at college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in the 80s. The melons were grown at Windmill Point Farm, about an hour from the slopes where the cultivar originated. The seeds grew true to type, and Taylor was able to produce a stable strain that attracted attention from local and national media, as well as organizations such as Seeds of Diversity. At one point, the Slow Food Foundation selected the Montreal melon for its Ark of Taste.

Once he had saved sufficient seeds, Taylor started spreading them around in an effort to preserve the rare genes. He worked on the crop for several years and even crossed it with other melons to produce a smaller variety that has the same taste as the original Montreal muskmelon. But the melon never enjoyed the same commercial success it had in the early 20th century. Taylor has since stopped growing it altogether, and now it’s hard to find a mention of it except as a historical curiosity.

But the melon is still regarded as a “Lazarus species,” one rescued from extinction and restored to life. It may not be available in your local supermarket, or even at your farmers market, but there is sufficient supply of the seed to ensure that heirloom gardeners will be able to grow the crop at home.

Growing the Montreal Melon in the 21st Century

Want to grow the caviar of cantaloupe in your heirloom garden? You can now purchase seeds for the Montreal market melon from a number of online seed catalogues across Canada. I haven’t been able to locate a supplier for the melon seeds in either the US or Europe, but please post a comment if you know of one!

Montreal muskmelons need full sun and lots of pampering. But if you are up to the challenge of growing these historic beauties, in about 85-90 days you, too, can enjoy an exotic taste from the past. Remember, these are really huge fruits! Even though most growing them nowadays say they aren’t able to produce a melon on the same scale as those of days gone by, they are still growing to a weight of 5 lbs. As the melons don’t store well, it’s best to eat them soon after harvest. So be sure to share them around! Let your friends and neighbours get a taste of the fruit that came back from the dead.

 

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Featured Image: Collage created in Canva using CC0 photos from Pixabay users Isasza, seagul, and Robert Owen-Wahl