Native to the area known today as Afghanistan, carrots (Daucus carota var. sativus) are part of the plant family Umbelliferae. The name refers to the umbrella-like flowers that distinguish plants in this botanical family. Other commonly known members of the Umbelliferae family include fennel, anise, parsnips, parsley, celery, coriander, cumin, caraway, and dill.
Carrots have been cultivated since 3000 BC. The ancient Romans valued the plant as an invigorating aphrodisiac and powerful medicinal herb while the Greeks considered the carrot, which they called “philtron” a love medicine used to make women yielding and men ardent. Carrots were also used to treat liver and kidney problems, heal stomach ulcers, relieve the pain of childbirth, and remedy bladder discomfort.
The first carrots were grown for their pungent leaves and aromatic seeds, rather than their roots. Carrots are biennial and in the first season, they produce feathery foliage and an edible tap root. Carrots do not flower in the first year. In the second year, carrots left in the soil at harvest time and allowed to winter in the soil and bolt, exhibit an abundance of lacey dark green fern-like foliage and attractive multi-colored flowers that produce highly aromatic seeds.
Carrots exhibit beautiful, fragrant flowers, in a bright rainbow of colors and hues. Purple carrots produce purple or violet-hued blooms, while white, yellow, red, and orange carrots have delicate flower heads in bold, fiery shades to subtle soft peach colorations. Not only are they beautiful, but carrot flowers are also edible and highly nutritious. The flowers are lovely in a floral arrangement or used as a dinner plate garnish.
Carrots grown during the 10th century in Asia Minor and Persia were white, black, or purple with a forked root. It wasn’t until the late 15th century that Dutch farmers used mutant strains of the wild purple carrot, and over decades developed the sweet orange varieties of carrots we enjoy today.
Carrots soon became quite popular in England during the Elizabethan era. While the Elizabethans were one of the first cultures to enjoy carrots as a food staple, they also used the feathery greens and brightly colored flowers as decorative greenery, adorning their hair and clothing.
The orange and yellow varieties of carrot first cultivated in the Netherlands were brought to North America by the early colonist. The tasty root vegetable proved popular with the Native American tribes and was soon traded extensively across the land.
Colorful Carrots: A Goldmine of Nutrients
The many scientific studies indicating eating carrots may help lower the risk of lung, colon, skin, and breast cancer are just a few of the many reasons for including carrots in a plant-based diet.
Although wild carrots are found in many parts of the world, domesticated carrots are more flavorful and less woody than those harvested in the wild. Both the taproot and the leaves of the carrot are edible. However, the deep green leaves are quite bitter.
Carrots are cholesterol and fat-free, low in organic sodium, and are an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K, and B6. Also, carrots are a healthy source of calcium, potassium, phosphorous, copper, manganese, niacin, folate, and thiamin, as well as an ideal source of calcium pectate, a pectin fiber that scientific studies have shown to have cholesterol-lowering properties. The health-promoting pectin in carrots helps lower serum cholesterol levels because soluble pectin fibers bind with bile acids.
Carotenoids are the organic pigments that give vegetables and fruit their vibrant color. Research studies indicate that diets high in carotenoids help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Health-seeking people following a plant-based diet high in carotenoids derived from natural foods also exhibit substantially lower mortality from a diverse array of chronic illnesses.
Low-calorie carrots are rich in the carotenoids lutein, alpha-carotene, and beta-carotene. Our bodies convert beta-carotene into vitamin A. Vitamin A plays a critical role in bone growth, reproduction, vision, and regulation of the immune system.
Although crisp and crunchy raw carrots are a flavorful snack and a delicious addition to salads and slaw, cooked carrots offer substantially more health benefits. Research studies indicate that only 3 percent of the beta-carotene in raw carrots activates during the digestive process. The amount of beta-carotene is improved by up to 39 percent by juicing, pulping, cooking, and adding a bit of oil.
No matter if you are preparing carrots for munching on raw or for cooking, never peel the skin on a carrot. Like many root vegetables, the majority of the nutritional value is stored just below the skin. Rather than peeling, lightly scrub the skin clean and choose an organic variety whenever possible.
Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant that helps slow down cell aging. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reports that cooking carrots increases their level of beta-carotene. Another recently published study conducted at the University of Arkansas notes the antioxidant power of cooked carrots was, on average, 34 percent higher than raw carrots.
A study published by England’s Newcastle University School of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Development reports that the potent anti-cancer properties of carrots are best retained if the vegetable is not cut up before cooking. The study advises that carrots boiled before they are cut up to 25 percent more of the polyacetylene antioxidant falcarinol, a potent anti-cancer compound. Dr. Kirsten Brandt, the lead researcher for the study, states, “Chopping up your carrots increases the surface area, so more of the nutrients leach out into the water while they are cooked.”
Containing a high amount of dietary fiber, regular consumption of the root vegetable is an effective, natural remedy for chronic constipation.
Scientific research indicates that the powerful anti-inflammatory properties found in carrots can help significantly in reducing the pain and swelling of gout, arthritis, rheumatism, and other inflammations.
Based on the number of consumers that purchase carrots on a weekly basis, the sweet and flavorful root is considered America’s favorite vegetable. If your family loves carrots, they must claim their space in the homestead garden. Fresh carrots are always a sell-out at the farmers’ market making them an excellent supplemental cash crop for homesteading folks.
There are several different varieties of carrots with a diverse array of root types, shapes, sizes, and colors. Carrots can range from as small as two inches or as long as a yard. An herbaceous plant containing up to 87 percent water, carrots are typically orange in color, although some varieties are white, yellow, red, or purple. Carrots have a sweet and mildly minty taste. Purple carrots tend to be the sweetest.
All varieties of carrots are biennial but are cultivated as annuals. Carrots are semi-hardy in that they can tolerate a light frost but not a deep freeze. Carrots thrive in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 10 providing soil conditions and moisture requirements are met.
When selecting which types of carrots to add to your homestead garden, consider how you plan to use your carrots, what type of soil you have to work with, and your preferred visual appearance. Long and slender, or fat and stubby, it is fun to explore the seed catalogs and review the many dozens of different kinds of colorful carrots available.
Carrots do best when planted in a light and loose friable sandy loam with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Carrots flourish in a full-sun location with good drainage. Light consistent irrigation to keep the soil moist is required for seed germination. Monitor moisture. Carrots require adequate water for growth and development but cannot survive in soggy soil.
Prepare the soil by tilling and working to remove rocks, roots, and weeds. Till to a depth of 12 inches, and then rake soil until even, smooth, and loose. Surface sow carrot seed, pressing gently to set. For a continual harvest, plant a new row daily. Provide consistent irrigated moisture. Best planted in the spring and fall, carrots fail to perform during the heat of summer.
Weeds compete for light, water, sunlight, nutrients, and space, crowding out the carrots. Once the carrots are well established, be diligent about weeding to produce a high-quality, high-yielding crop.
Carrots take from three to five months from planting to harvest. For the best quality, carrots should be harvested before they reach full maturity. When harvested a bit early, carrots have the sweetest flavor and brightest color.