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Brief Summary

Various forms of wild carrot (usually treated as different subspecies and/or varieties of Daucus carota), occur as natives across much of western Asia and Europe. Their pale roots are small and have an unpleasant taste. In contrast, Daucus carota sativus, the domesticated carrot, which was already mentioned in classical texts two millenia ago, has enlarged roots which can taste quite sweet. The domesticated carrot arose in the Near East, in the region between Afghanistan and Turkey. In its early form, it had dark purple roots that were often branched. Orange, carotene-colored forms developed later and are illustrated in a Byzantine herbal from 512 A.D. In the 17th century, carrots were developed in the Netherlands with denser orange carotene pigment and these were the progenitors of the modern cultivated carrot (Vaughan and Geissler 1997). These orange forms soon replaced the purple ones in Europe and the Mediterranean. Carrots are eaten both raw and cooked and are used in both savory and sweet dishes. In Asia, they are often preserved in jams and syrups. (Sanderson 2005)

The domesticated carrot (Daucus carota sativus) is easily recognized by its highly pigmented, fleshy, edible, brittle roots. In wild carrots, fresh roots are flexible and fibrous (brittle and not fibrous in domesticated forms), the transition from shoot to storage organ is indistinct externally (the storage organ--the "carrot"--is abruptly expanded in domesticated forms), rosette foliage is often prostrate (usually conspicuously erect in domesticated forms), and umbels often have one or several purple central flowers (rarely in domesticated forms). Cultivated carrots with white roots are occasionally encountered, but relative to wild carrots these roots are palatable and brittle and are unbranched.

Within the subspecies D. c. sativus, two varieties are sometimes recognized: The "Western Carrot" (variety sativus) and the "Eastern Carrot" (variety atrorubens). The Western Carrot may have orange, yellow, or white storage organs and is best characterized by yellowish-green highly dissected foliage that mostly lacks pubescence. The Western Carrot is grown around the world and with the exception of Asia is the main variety cultivated. The Eastern Carrot usually has purple and/or yellow storage organs. Occasionally, roots are reddish or yellowish-orange. The Eastern Carrot is characterized by grayish-green (glaucous) and only moderately dissected foliage that is moderately pubescent. The Eastern Carrot is common only in Asia, but it has been introduced elsewhere. Although one might expect the interesting colors of this variety to confer commercial value in Western markets at least as a novelty, the fact that the pigments are water soluble, like those of beets, seems to have limited its appeal in the West (but see Surles et al. 2004). Furthermore, these carrots may be more susceptible to decay. It is important to realize that this varietal taxonomy is somewhat artificial. For example, in Asia, where there has been considerable genetic mixing between these forms, plants with intermediate characteristics are commonly encountered. Some of these varietal hybrids have even found commercial success in the West. (IPGRI 1998)


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© Shapiro, Leo

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