.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.
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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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
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!