Learn all there is to know about planting, harvesting and saving heirloom carrot seeds as well as the cool history behind some of the rarest and oldest heirloom carrots.
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom carrot varieties was taken from chapter 11, “Carrots.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom carrot varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
The carrot is a vegetable that we have inherited from classical antiquity. The codex of Dioskorides from Constantinople (A.D. 500–511) shows an orange carrot, somewhat branching in the root, with small, dense leaves. The Romans called carrots by two names, carota and pastinaca, which has thoroughly confused some classical scholars, since pastinaca also meant parsnip as well as wild carrot, or what we call Queen Anne’s Lace. The Romans seem to have lumped things together according to how they were used or by certain visual similarities, and this is further complicated by the fact that both wild and cultivated carrots were used in cookery and medicine. If the carrot in the codex is indeed orange, then the implication is clear that Roman kitchen gardens contained carrot varieties that later became extinct. Some botanists argue that the codex depicts a yellow carrot, for which there is certain continuity into the Middle Ages. Having seen the original codex in Vienna myself, I would stand by orange, for it certainly looks as orange as any carrots I grow. This excursion into carrot colors is not altogether arcane; in order to create orange carrots, we must also have violet ones, and violet carrots were not local by any stretch of the Roman imagination.
While the white carrot is native to Europe, the genetic origin of both yellow and violet carrots is believed to be Afghanistan. Both the yellow and violet carrots were mentioned by Arabic writers and moved westward through Iran into Syria, and then into Spain by the 1100s. This could very well have been a reintroduction of something the Romans had known already, but documentation is lacking for such an assumption, and archaeology cannot differentiate between the seed of cultivated and wild carrots. What is known for certain is that by the early 1300s, the violet carrot was being raised in Italy, where it was first mentioned as an ingredient in a compote. It was stewed with honey and served as a dessert.
By the 1600s three types of kitchen-garden carrots had evolved: the white brought in from the wild, the yellow tracing its origins to Afghanistan, and the violet variety just discussed. The white carrot survived into the nineteenth century, as did the yellow, which had been raised in Flanders since the 1500s as the Lemon Carrot (carotte jaune longue). This was also the first carrot variety introduced into England. The deep orange, carotene-rich vegetable now associated with the word carrot evolved in Holland during the late 1600s, when it first appeared in Dutch paintings of the period. The Common Early Horn is mentioned in Dutch sources as early as 1740, as well as a long scarlet type. Both were sent to America by Dutch Mennonites and were therefore cultivated in Pennsylvania many years before they were introduced into other parts of colonial America. Out of these two Dutch orange-colored carrots most of the later culinary carrots evolved, including the early American variety called Long Orange.
Today there are many delightful heirloom carrots to choose from. No kitchen garden is complete without carrots, yet carrots are extremely site sensitive. The reason there are so many varieties is that seedsmen must have carrots to fit a wide range of situations, soil and climate being only two considerations. The W. Atlee Burpee seed catalog for 1912 published a useful illustration (see the image below) of what are now considered the leading heirloom varieties of carrots. Burpee still offers many of these old-time favorites of the kitchen garden, although several have undergone considerable improvement since 1912. All of these carrots are orange and therefore, from the botanist’s standpoint, variant forms of the same thing. Which indeed they are; they will all easily cross with one another and degenerate into the orange sister of Queen Anne’s Lace. The shapes, however, are important, because they are designed to accommodate particular soil types.
Starting from the right, Golden Ball can be grown on fairly heavy ground. It is a strain of Early Frame, a type of carrot that grows quickly and was used historically as a garnish for roasts and fanciful food presentations. It was bred in the early nineteenth century as a variety for cold-frame culture and will overwinter well given proper protection. If planted too late in the spring, it will split as hot weather advances. Otherwise, it is very crisp and delicate, better for salads or raw dishes than in cooked ones. It has been reintroduced as a strain called Parisian Rondo, which the impressionable hover over as something new and exotic.
The Oxheart or Guérande is a French variety from Nantes developed in the 1870s. It is almost 6 inches long, grows quickly, and may weigh as much as a pound when fully mature. It is used primarily in cookery as a stewing carrot, for which it is well suited, for one carrot does a pot. In my garden it often develops into ugly shapes and sometimes splits in cold weather. It cannot be overwintered where the ground freezes.
The Chantenay is said (incorrectly) to have been developed in 1829, although there is no mention of it in French or English sources until fifty years later. It is a deep red-orange and does well in heavy soils, one reason for its popularity in the United States. It is also called Red-Cored Chantenay owing to the brilliant scarlet color of its core. It is only slightly longer than Oxheart, growing to about 6 or 7 1/2 inches, depending on soil. There is a wide range of variant forms huckstered under the name of Chantenay, but the original needs no improvement.
The True Danvers is an American variety developed in Connecticut in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a crop to interplant with onions. Since carrots and onions are compatible in the field, the Connecticut onion farmers used True Danvers to increase the productivity of their land. The carrot is hardy and does well in heavy New England soils, thus remaining popular with American gardeners in short-season areas of the country.
The Saint Valery is sometimes considered an intermediate type as expressed by Vilmorin (1885, 167), but it is so variable today that there is little reason to treat it as a separate variety. It is for practical purposes synonymous with the English variety called Long Red Surrey. Some would even equate these with James’s Scarlet Intermediate, a carrot of definite eighteenth-century origin and worthy of cultivation. Grown side by side, these three carrots often appear identical. After they are cooked, there is no telling them apart. Perhaps it would be better to call them distinctive strains rather than separate varieties, bad seed aside.
The Long Orange is an American variety from the early nineteenth century. It is one of those narrow, spindle-shaped carrots that can only be grown successfully as a table crop in loose, sandy soil. Seed was sold nationwide by the Shakers, but the carrot was mostly used as a fodder crop for livestock, and therefore its shape, color, and other salient features were never considered as important as its keeping qualities. This was the carrot fed to cattle to make the milk yellow for butter production, one reason why whole milk years ago was so rich in beta-carotene.
Carrots are biennial and therefore must be overwintered for seed-saving purposes. Seed should be planted where the carrots are to grow and thinned to allow for proper development according to the size and shape of the root. It is always better to give carrots room—a good 6 inches between plants—so that they will develop more perfectly. Thinnings can be used in soups and salads.
The object of many carrot breeders has been to reduce the size of the tops so that more carrots can be planted closer together. Yet if the carrot root is not shaded by its leaves and is exposed to the sun above the surface of the ground, the skin will likely turn green or brown and the top part of the carrot will be bitter. If the roots should be exposed, mound up the soil to cover the shoulders, or use sand. The best fertilizer for carrots is old coffee grounds. It appalls me to see restaurants dump their coffee grounds in the garbage when they could be recycled to good advantage in carrot beds.
For seed-saving purposes, select the most picture-perfect carrots in the fall—at least six specimens, better ten. Prune off the tops, leaving about 1 inch of the stems. Fill a Styrofoam ice chest with damp sand and place the carrots on their sides in layers. Cover well and seal with heavy tape. Label the chest so that its contents are clearly marked and dated, then store the chest in a garage or outbuilding that remains cold over the winter but which will protect the carrots from freezing.
In the early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, plant the carrots as close together as possible. In the course of the summer, they will bolt and bloom. The plants may grow as tall as 4 feet and therefore require staking. Staking will also keep the seed off the ground, since the plants become top-heavy during rains. Once the tops begin to dry out and the flower heads (called umbles) turn brown, they can be snipped off with scissors and dried indoors. Roll the dry flower heads between the hands over a sieve. Collect the seed, date, and jar it. Carrot seed is good for three years.
Now the question is, What to plant? I have cast my vote for the following three carrots; they not only offer the widest possible choice in terms of color but are also the easiest to grow in a wide variety of soils and, most important, have the most distinctive flavors. One carrot is orange, one is violet, and one is white.
'Early Horn' Carrot
Amelia Simmons recommended sowing carrots among the onions “on true onion ground,” and the best carrot for this purpose is one she knew quite well. The Early Horn carrot is an eighteenth-century variety from Holland that has been perennially popular with American gardeners. In fact, it was one of the carrot varieties consistently promoted by the Shakers and listed in their Gardener’s Manual (1843, 12).
James Seymour, kitchen gardener to the countess of Bridgewater, was also a great promoter of the carrot in England. In an 1841 article on it, he recommended Early Horn over all others for table use due to its size and keeping qualities. Its size is important. Measuring 6 inches long and about 2 inches in diameter, this cylindrically shaped carrot does not taper to a point and can therefore be grown in shallow soils where other carrots will not succeed. Seymour recommended pulling it when it is young and tender, advice as good today as in the 1840s. Its culinary qualities are superb, for it is not given to a tough core, and the bright orange-red skin presents a handsome visual effect in the kitchen. It is also an early-season carrot, designed for culture in hotbeds and cold frames so that it can be brought to table in March and April. For such early cropping, seed must be sown in February.
Early carrots often bolt late in the summer, in which case seed should be saved only from those that bolt last. It is important not to create an early-bolting strain. If there are early carrots that have not bolted and they have a fine shape and color, store them over the winter in damp sand, then plant them the following spring rather than taking seed from fall plants.
'Violet' or 'Purple' Carrot
The ancestral home of this carrot is Afghanistan, where it figures largely in the cookery of that country. However, this has been a well-known variety in Europe since the Middle Ages and was used by the Dutch to create the cross with the Lemon Carrot that resulted in the race of orange carrots we know today. Because it turns brown when cooked, the violet carrot has never been a great favorite of chefs, but light cooking retains the color, and it is extremely ornamental in raw salads.
The carrot was mentioned consistently in garden books and seed catalogs in this country down to the latter part of the nineteenth century, then disappeared. The Album Vilmorin (1857, 8) depicted it sliced to expose its yellow core, and the Vilmorins listed it in their 1885 garden book. In this country. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange began offering it again in 1991. The carrot is quite unusual: slender, spindle-shaped, growing about 9 inches long, and about I inch in diameter at the crown. The smooth skin is a deep purple, almost amethyst color, which also penetrates the flesh to the core. The core is bright yellow; thus, when sliced, it is eye-catching. The flavor is similar to that of a wild carrot, high in terpenoids and low in sugars. It goes well with lamb and beef.
The Vilmorins considered the carrot better suited to warm climates, but unlike most carrots, this one thrives in wet, heavy soil. Most of the violet carrots that I have grown have bolted the first year, coming to flower late in October. This seems to be a characteristic of this variety. But it has a horticultural advantage that goes beyond cookery, since the flowers range from rose pink to lavender and violet. They are far more beautiful than the white flowers of the common wild carrot, and would probably submit to improvement as a cut flower.
The following recipe is well adapted to the use of violet carrots in dessert recipes. It comes from Benjamin Smith Lyman’s Vegetarian Diet and Dishes (1917, 249).
Angel Locks Carrot Recipe
Scrape and wash a pound and a half of fine red carrots; cut them in very fine strips like straws; put them one or two minutes into boiling water; then take them out, and drain them. Into a saucepan put a pound of sugar with a cupful of water; boil ten minutes, and put in the carrot strips and a lemon-zest chopped very fine. When the syrup is well boiled down, squeeze upon the carrots the juice of a lemon. When the syrup is completely boiled down, take it from the fire; spread the strips upon a plate: let them cool; pile them up in the shape of a pyramid, and serve up.
'White Belgian' Carrot
The story of the White Belgian Carrot is a fascinating study in what can be done with plants taken from the wild. Under the heading of “Nouveautés” in Le Bon Jardinier for 1838, an account was given about Henry Vilmorin and how he found a wild carrot on the coast of Belgium. Over the course of four years, he carefully selected seed to produce a white carrot of large size with a tender, fleshy texture. Vilmorin’s object was to show that this selective improvement could be done with any wild plant, and that the Romans had probably developed many distinctive varieties that are now extinct or reverted to their wild from.
An article confirming Vilmorin’s experiment appeared in the Gardener’s Magazine (April 1840, 209–10). It was written by a gardener from the vicinity of Canterbury, England, who reported how Vilmorin had sent him seed in the winter of 1832–33 to trial. He raised the carrot and found that it preferred sandy soil and to his mind was best suited as a field crop for horses. Since then, the English have always viewed the white Belgian as a fodder carrot, even though it is perfectly good for human consumption. In fact, in his Modern Housewife or Ménagère (1850, 89), Alexis Soyer specifically called for the white Belgian carrot in his recipe for a purée called Crécy à la Reine, which he described as “uncommon and delicate.”
The date of this trial is important to keep in mind, since it was not until 1839 that the carrot gained commercial recognition under the name New Green-Topped White, and it was not until 1841 that Charles Hovey introduced the carrot into the United States. In essence, the entire process of creating the new variety and testing it in the field took about ten years. This timetable appears to hold true for most heirloom vegetables, so dates of introduction are also in many ways highly artificial. The most important lesson to come out of Vilmorin’s experiment, however, was that wild carrots taken from inland sites rather than from the seaside would not yield to improvement. The clear meaning of this was that wild plants had to be taken away from the environment where they grew in order to successfully transform them into useful vegetables.
This spawned a large number of experiments in Europe that resulted in the improvement of dandelions, the round-leafed variety of corn salad, and the parsnip called The Student, to name just a few. Because it had such a watershed effect on horticulture, Vilmorin’s experiment was discussed and rediscussed for many years. Even in 1890, the American Garden (11:143) reviewed the event as a turning point in kitchen gardening. Not surprisingly, with all due honors, the carrot was commemorated in the Album Vilmorin (1851, 2), shown life-size.
Vilmorin’s white carrot was no stranger to America, for David Landreth & Sons carried seed for much of the nineteenth century, and Robert Buist even discussed it in The Family Kitchen Gardener (1847, 42), noting that in France it was used for making soups. Vilmorin also brought out a yellow and an orange strain, which were distributed in this country. All three forms are large, often measuring 24 to 28 inches long. The part of the carrot that sticks up above the ground has green skin, but the flesh is not bitter or grassy.
In order to grow carrots of a large size the ground must be heavily trenched to about 36 inches in depth and well mixed with sand. Otherwise, the carrot is relatively trouble free and overwinters well under straw. It survived one of the severest winters on record a few years ago without the slightest damage. Because the roots break up the soil so well, this is an ideal vegetable to plant on ground that will be sown with leeks or onions the following season.
Diced and sweated with chopped leeks, olive oil, and a few fresh bay leaves, this carrot makes an excellent starter for soup stock.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.