Monday, February 20, 2012

Carrots: From Antiquity to My Garden

Like many modern vegetables, carrots are native to Southwestern Asia.  A wild form of the modern carrot likely grew in the area prior to the 1st Century AD.  Early carrots were cultivated for their leaves and seeds, rather than for the root we commonly eat today.  The roots were shaded red or yellow, as opposed to the modern orange color.  
Around the 8th Century AD, carrot cultivation began in Europe.  Enthusiasts throughout the continent developed strains of varying size and shape, but it was not until the 17th Century that an individual in the Netherlands developed the first orange carrot root.  The popularity of the orange carrot spread like wildfire, and the modern carrot was born.
So here we are in 2012, and I am faced with my annual carrot dilemma.  You see, I love these little roots, but my suburban garden is a less than ideal environment for most carrot varieties.  I have compact clay soil, and although my husband tills and amends with compost every year, the soil remains heavy.  Last year's yellow carrots were so thin and brittle that many snapped in half when I tried to harvest.  This year, I've finally learned my lesson.  I went in search of an heirloom variety developed specifically for heavy soils and ended up with two seed packets. 
The Red Core Chantenay Carrot
From Vilmorin-Andrieus, The Vegetable Garden, 1920
Chantenay carrots originate from the Chantenay region of France.  They were first introduced in seed catalogs by Vilmorin-Andrieus in the late 1800s.  I could not find the exact year of introduction, but it must have been sometime after 1885.  The seed company's 1885 book, The Vegetable Garden, did not list the variety, but the 1920 edition included them.  That edition described Chantenay as follows: "this variety differs from all the others by its large volume and by being completely rounded at the end" (p. 197).  It is rumored to be quite sweet and tender, despite its broad shoulders and stocky root tip.  
According to my seed packet, the Red Core variety that I am growing this year was introduced to America in 1929.  Chantenay carrots reached the height of their popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, peaking in the 1960s.  From there, they steadily declined in popularity as a result of mechanized farming innovations.
"Parisienne" or Paris Market Carrot 
From Vilmorin-Andrieus, The Vegetable Garden, 1885
Originally known as the French Horn or Early Frame, this carrot is a short stump carrot with a globular shape.  Because of its popularity among Parisian market gardeners in the 19th century, heirloom seed companies often market it under the name "Parisienne" or "Paris Market."  According to historian William Woys Weaver, the carrot was primarily cultivated for use as a garnish.
I first found mention of the Early Frame carrot in Fearing Burr's 1866 book Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Burr describes the Early Frame as "especially adapted for cultivation under glass, both on account of its earliness, and the shortness and small size of its roots" (p. 18).  I assume he is referring to use of a cold frame.  Interestingly, Vilmorin-Andrieus's 1885 book specifically mentions cultivation in Paris, noting that Parisian market gardeners "grow a very glossy-skinned form of it, rather pale in colour, and broader than long" (p. 162).  By 1920, a new strain of the Early Frame carrot had been introduced under the name "Parisian Forcing Carrot." 
The Paris Market Carrot is an early season variety, ready to eat in as little as 50 days.  Although originally introduced for use in a cold frame, these carrots can be grown in rocky or heavy soils due to their shallow roots.  They also thrive in containers.
**The above blog post refers to the following sources:
Burr, Fearing.  Garden Vegetables and How to Cultivate Them.  Boston: JE Tilton & Co., 1866.
Vilmorin-Andrieus.  The Vegetable Garden.  London: John Murray, 1885.
Vilmorin-Andrieus.  The Vegetable Garden, 3rd ed.  New York: EP Dutton & Co., 1920.

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