Carrots for Valuable Vitamin A

The carrot (Daucus carota) gets its name from the French word carotte, which in turn comes from the Latin carota. It has been known since ancient times and is believed to have originated in Afghanistan and adjacent areas.

A wide diversity of forms unknown in America is found in middle Asia and also in Asia Minor. Apparently some primitive forms were carried to Asia Minor far back in prehistoric times, and many distinct kinds were later developed there. Among the kinds strange to us in America are some with purplish-red roots, colored like garden beets, and some with fuzzy light-gray leaves.

Our common carrot is called the Mediterranean type, because it has long been known in Mediterranean countries and was probably developed there from kinds carried from Asia Minor. In the Far East is still another form, the Japanese carrot, that is commonly three feet long or more.

Mothers Say, "Eat Your Carrots, Junior"

As is true of a number of other vegetables, it seems that the first interest in carrots as food developed from their supposed medicinal value. Greek agriculturists and physicians around the first century of our era wrote of carrots and their value as a stomach tonic.

Are we amused now by the ancients' attaching such medical importance to the carrot? Why should we be? In America in the past 25 to 30 years the humble carrot has risen from an obscure root, considered mainly as a delicacy for horses, to a position of genuine importance as human food.

How did it happen? Our doctors and nutrition experts made us believe carrots are "good for us"; we know that varieties with a deep orange color are rich in carotene, or provitamin A, found also in other yellow vegetables and in green leaves. Vitamin A is found in such foods of animal origin as fish-liver oils, butter, and egg yolks.

Perhaps the ancient Greeks were the real discoverers of the benefit of carrots in the diet. However, they did not know the reasons and lacked the teaching facilities used to induce us to eat our carrots.

The carrot was certainly cultivated in the Mediterranean area before the Christian Era, but it was not important as a food until much later. There is a long gap of about 900 years between the writings of the Greeks and Romans of the first to third centuries and the next clear records about the carrot.

By the 13th century carrots were being grown in fields, orchards, gardens, and vineyards in Germany and France. At that time the plant was known also in China, where it was supposed to have come from Persia.

By the 16th century nearly all the botanists and writers on gardening, all over Europe, were familiar with the carrot and were describing many kinds, including red and purple kinds in France, yellow and red kinds in England. About 1600, in England, carrots were common enough to be grown as a farm crop as well as in small garden plots.

Carrots Arrived Before the Mayflower

European voyagers carried the carrot to America soon after discovery of the New World, as is shown by Sir John Hawkins's reference to it on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela, in 1565. It was grown by the struggling colonists of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609. Twenty years later the Pilgrims, or some of those who followed them closely, were growing it in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims themselves may have introduced it there. Before the middle of the 17th century it was known in Brazil.

Even the American Indians rather promptly took up carrot culture. In forays against the Iroquois in upper New York State in 1779 Gen. John Sullivan's forces destroyed stores of carrots as well as parsnips. The story is told that children of the Flathead tribe in Oregon liked carrots so well that they could not resist stealing them from the fields, although they resisted stealing other things.

The carrots having spherical roots and tapering roots have long been known, but the cylindrical stump-rooted sorts are of rather recent development, first grown in America about 60 years ago.

All varieties of importance in this country are deep orange in color, although yellow and even white kinds are known. Some of the deep-colored varieties are erroneously referred to as "red." This error has even crept into the name of a currently popular variety, Red Cored Chantenay, which is a rich orange color, not red. It is interesting, however, that pure carotene, which makes carrots yellow or orange, appears red.

In addition to the large quantities marketed fresh, we now find carrots canned, and even frozen, especially in an attractive mixture with green garden peas. During the war many thousands of tons were dehydrated and shipped overseas in sealed metal containers in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide or nitrogen to prevent loss of carotene.