Carrots - The Road to Domestication

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History of the Carrot

The Road to Domestication.... AND the Colour Orange!

Chapters in the history rooms:

 History Part 1 - A Brief Timeline


 History Part 2 - Neolithic to AD 200 - Origins and development


 History Part 3 - AD 200 to 1500 - From Medicine to Food


 History Part 4 - 1500 to 1700 - Evolution and Improvement in the Renaissance


 History Part 5 - 1700 to 1900 - Science & Enlightenment - the modern carrot evolves


 History Part 6 - 1900 to date - The Modern Carrot and Genetic Discovery


 History of Carrot Colour - The road to domestication and the origin of Orange Carrots


 History in WW2 - Takes an in depth look of the role of carrots in World War Two, reviving its popularity


 Illustrations of Carrot in Ancient Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

Page Navigation: Domestication - Colour Orange - Art Works - Etymology - Ancient Manuscripts - Genetics

colors of carrots

Cultivation then Domestication

Summary - Some time about 1,100 years ago, farmers living in what is now Afghanistan took advantage of a mutation in the genes of their white/purple carrots. In the process of domesticating the white, wild carrot, they turned it yellow.  Six hundred years later in Europe, cultivation took another turn, and carrots deepened in hue from yellow to dark orange.

This has been found from the modern examination of carrot's DNA, but you can also see for yourself by visiting an art museum. Before the 16th century or so, carrots were painted yellow. Afterward, they were orange. They also became a fixture of artwork from the Netherlands - not because the Dutch were particularly carrot crazy, but because painters wanted to honour their royal family, who were members of the House of Orange.

(It is not true they specifically developed the orange for the royal family - The closest to the truth is that the Dutch adopted orange as its the national colour and then added orange carrots to the list of items “dedicated” to the royal family. The orange carrot came first - the Royal family dedication second.)

People preferred orange rooted carrots because they looked and cooked better than purple. (examples of art work here)

The modern genetic scientists know pretty much when carrots got their colour, and have a pretty good idea of how that happened, but they still can't quite figure out why!

DNA and Genetics

Often the evolutionary history of a species can be found in a fossil record; other times, DNA and genetic fingerprints replace rocks and imprints. That is the case for the carrot, the richest crop source of vitamin A in the American diet, whose full genetic code has recently been deciphered by a team led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison in collaboration with the University of California, Davis.

May 2016 - Scientists have unveiled the gene in carrots that gives rise to carotenoids, a critical source of Vitamin A and the pigment that turns some fruits and vegetables bright orange or red. The new, high-quality genome assembly, which the researchers established for an orange doubled-haploid carrot (Nantes variety), contains more than 32,000 predicted protein-coding genes - more than humans!

 As the researchers reported  they were able to track down a candidate gene involved in orange carrot pigmentation and gained insight into the evolution of plants in the euasterid II lineage, which contains carrots, lettuce, sunflower, celery, and parsley. Read more here.

Looking back at the plant’s family tree, the researchers have been able to determine that it split with the grape about 113 million years ago and from the kiwi about 10 million years after that.

The research team traced carrot evolution as far back as the dinosaurs. Sometime between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods - roughly around the time dinosaurs went extinct - carrots, along with other plants of the era, picked up genetic advantages that allowed them to thrive in differing environmental conditions.

Time frame and geography - The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear.

Carrot is a vegetable cultivated worldwide for the consumption of its root. Historical data indicate that root colour has been differentially selected over time and according to geographical areas. Genetic research has shown that Eastern orange carrots derived from yellow varieties. Chinese orange carrots may well have derived from red varieties - It is possible that Chinese orange were derived from Chinese red instead of Western orange. Those results suggest that a different, independent process may have led to the development of orange carrot in China during the spread of the original Asian carrot varieties. (below - here)

Root pigmentation depends on the relative proportion of different carotenoids for the white, yellow, orange and red types but only internally for the purple and black ones.

The orange carrot, now so familiar, was once a novelty. In fact, this young upstart was first established and then commercially cultivated cultivated a little more than four hundred years ago. Until then, the purple variety was supreme. Although we consider the carrot immutable, it has been continually reinvented though the ages.

The commonly accepted reason why the ancients preferred orange and yellow carrots over the prevailing purple was because the purple turned the cooking utensils purple and the cooking water a muddy colour. This is because the pigment in orange carrots is fat soluble, whereas the purple is water soluble. Apparently historic humans just liked the way yellow and orange carrots looked and cooked. Is it possible that this is one question best answered by people, rather than the genetic reserach into carrots.

Why are orange carrots, orange?

Philipp Simon, a research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin, had the same question. The carotenoids that give carrots their vibrant hue are also what make them healthy for humans: Those chemicals are sources of vitamin A.

Recently, Simon and 20 other scientists scraped together the vegetable’s genome: a string of DNA more than 32,000 genes long. Their results, published in the journal Nature Genetics, help explain how carrots evolved from their wild white form to the one we know today.

From that long string of DNA, Simon was able to tease out a gene thought to be responsible for making carrots orange. It’s still just a candidate, he cautioned. The gene in question — DCAR_032551, or the “Y gene” for short — is found in other plants. It causes red, orange and yellow pigments to accumulate in leaves, where they help with photosynthesis.

But sometime about 1,100 years ago, farmers in what is now Afghanistan took advantage of a mutation in the Y gene that put it to work down in their carrots’ roots. In the process of domesticating the white, wild carrot, they turned it yellow. Six hundred years later in Europe, cultivation took another turn, and carrots deepened in hue from yellow to dark orange.

“There’s no good biological reason for carrots to be orange except one,” he said. “And it’s that people have been diddling around with carrots for 1,000 years.” More detail here.

The orange carrot probably existed perhaps as early as the 6th century, and it is likely that it began as a mutation of the Asian purple carrot and was cultivated into the modern edible plant in the 16th century in the Netherlands. We know that the orange carrot  took hold in Holland, it is argued, because of Dutch nationalism. This orange coloured carrot, it is said, without documentary evidence, was developed to honour William of Orange and his Royal House, because the orange variety was developed during his reign. It is myth that has been erroneously repeated so often that many people (including some historians!) believe it to be true. The closest to the truth is that the Dutch adopted orange as its the national colour and then added orange carrots to the list of items “dedicated” to the royal family. The orange carrot came first - the Royal family dedication second.

There is an ancient manuscript dated ad 512 images (below) which shows the first clear depictions of an orange rooted carrot, its subsequent history is lost in time. It could be a species which became extinct, or dormant, only to appear again in mutants found in the 16th century.

The Carrot has a somewhat complex and unclear history, surrounded by doubt and enigma and it is difficult to pin down when domestication took place. The wide distribution of Wild Carrot (Daucus carota, carota), the absence of carrot remains in archaeological excavations and lack of documentary evidence do not enable us to determine precisely where and when carrot domestication was initiated. Over thousands of years it moved from a small, tough, bitter and spindly root to a fleshy, sweet, pigmented unbranched edible root.  It transformed from its seeds being used as a medicine or aphrodisiac to the root being eaten in many different dishes. Even before the introduction of domesticated carrots, wild plants were grown in gardens as medicinal plants.

Unravelling its progress through the ages is complex and inconclusive, but nevertheless a fascinating journey through time and the history of mankind. It is considered that Carrots were originally purple with a thin root, then a mutant occurred which removed the purple pigmentation resulting in a new race of yellow carrots. A tale, probably apocryphal as it is unsubstantiated by documents, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour their king, William of Orange. Though the stabilised and domesticated orange carrot does date from the sixteenth century Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouringmulti colored carrots carrot museum crop William of Orange had anything to do with it!

The use of the same name for plants of a different genus or species is one of the lasting ambiguities inherited from the ancients, who were more apt to lump vegetables together according to how they were used, as in the case of the Roman propensity for treating carrots, parsnips, and parsley root as "pastinaca".

A carrot seed is virtually indistinguishable from a wild carrot seed and will not tell how the root was shaped or even its colour. Unfortunately, seeds are mostly what one has to work with from medieval sites.

Wild carrot is more in evidence than cultivated carrots in classical sources. They had edible leaves and thin, strong tasting white roots which ere prescribed for medicinal purposes. Names include Greek keras, staphylinos agrios, daukos and Latin daucus, pastinaca rustica. According to Pliny and Dioscorides these had aphrodisiac properties. (References:Dioscorides MM 3,35;Pliny NH 19,89, also 20.30-2 citing ‘Orpheus’, also 25.110-12;Galen SF 12.129)

An early form of carrot began to be cultivated in the last few centuries BCE. It is first mentioned in the 3rd century BCE by Diphilus of Siphnos. It was diuretic; it was also juicier and more digestible than the parsnip. This carrot was not red (or orange), it was whitish and understandably confused with parsnip as the same plant. The “redness” feature is thought ot have emerged in varieties developed in post classical times, after hybridisation with a central Asian species in the early Middle ages. The first European author who mentions red and yellow carrots is the Byzantine dietician Simeon Seth, in the 11th century.

(references: Dioscorides MM 3,57, E 2.101;Galen AF 6.654, SF 11.862; Athenaeus D 371d-e citing Diphilus of Siphnos (karo); Simeon Seth p35 Langkavel)

Throughout the Classical Period and the Middle Ages writers constantly referred to carrots and parsnips as the same plant and therefore using the same name. This may seem odd given that the average carrot is about six inches long and bright orange while a parsnip is off white and can grow 3 feet tall, but this distinction was much less obvious before early modern plant breeders got to work. The orange carrot is a product of the 16th and 17th centuries probably in the Low Countries. Its original colour varied between dirty white and pinkish purple. Both vegetables have also got much fatter and fleshier in recent centuries, and parsnips may have been bred to be longer as well. In other words early medieval carrots and parsnips were both thin and woody and mostly of a vaguely whitish colour. This being the case, almost everyone up to the early modern period can perhaps be forgiven for failing to distinguish between the two, however frustrating this may be for the food historian.

Violet carrots were well-known to ancient Greek physicians (they called them "red" carrots in Greek) but not as food, rather as diuretics since the seed as tea or infusion was employed to cure gravel, kidney stones, and male urinary blockages. The Greek written records were translated into Arabic, then translated into Latin and then used in medieval medical schools across Europe.

The Wild carrots have been present and used by Europeans since prehistoric times, but the garden carrot was unknown in Europe until the later Middle Ages. The Wild Carrot is the progenitor (wild ancestor) of the domestic carrot.  It is clear that the Wild Carrot and Domestic Carrot are the same species and both co-exist in the modern world. It is a popular myth that domestic carrot was developed from Wild Carrot, probably because of its similar smell and taste. Botanists have failed to develop an edible vegetable from the wild root and when cultivation of garden carrots lapses a few generations, it reverts to its ancestral type.  In 1866 French botanist  M Vilmorin claimed to have produced a viable, cultivated carrot from wild plants in four generations. The experiment was never repeated and it is thought that the "wild" plants used had previously been hybridised in nature with cultivated carrots. (Banga 1957)

Domesticated Cultivated Carrot - Daucus carota, sub species sativus 

The time frame and geographic region(s) of the first cultivation of carrots are unclear. Vavilov (1992 , pp. 337–340) identified Asia Minor (eastern Turkey) and the inner Asiatic regions as the centers of origin of cultivorange carrot close upated carrot and noted Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) as being “the basic center of Asiatic kinds of cultivated carrots” where “wild carrots … practically invited themselves to be cultivated”.

As observed by the presence of carrot seed at prehistoric human habitations 4000 to 5000 years ago (Newiler, 1931), it is speculated that wild carrot seed was used medicinally or as a spice (Andrews, 1949 ; Brothwell and Brothwell, 1969).

Carrot was cultivated and used as a storage root similar to modern carrots in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and perhaps Anatolia beginning around the 10th century (Mackevic, 1932 ; Zagorodskikh, 1939). On the basis of historical documents, the first domesticated carrot roots were purple and yellow and recorded in Central Asia, Asia Minor, then Western Europe and finally in England between the 11th and 15th centuries (Banga, 1963). Interestingly, orange carrots were not well documented until the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe (Banga, 1957a , b ; Stolarczyk and Janick, 2011), indicating that orange carotenoid accumulation may have resulted from a secondary domestication event.

Wild carrot has existed across much of Europe and parts of Asia since Neolithic times, evidenced from seeds remains found in archaeological sites. The domestic carrot did not descend directly from the Wild Carrot, it is thought that in the experiment, in 1866, mutations from the wild varieties were erroneously selected and developed. No one has managed to repeat this experiment.  The primary origins of the domesticated carrot are Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Carrot domestication took somewhat differing paths east and west of Central Asia.

Morphological characteristics lead to a division of the cultivated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) into two botanical varieties: var. atrorubens and var. sativus (Small 1978).  Var. atrorubens refers to carrots originating from the East, exhibiting yellow or purple storage roots and poorly indented, grey-green, pubescent foliage. Var. sativus refers to carrots originating from the West and exhibiting orange, yellow or sometimes white roots, and highly indented, nonpubescent, yellow-green foliage (Small 1978). Many intermediate variants exist between these two types.

Before the first reports of orange carrots, purple root colour was apparently more popular in eastern regions, yellow more popular in the west. Eastern carrots tend to have less deeply divided leaflets with heavy leaf pubescence in some cultivars. While early flowering is unacceptable for any carrot production, eastern carrots have a greater tendency toward early flowering than western carrots, likely due to the somewhat warmer climates over the eastern production range. Carrot Colors

Beyond the yellow, purple, and orange root colours, eastern carrots have long included red-rooted types while western carrots included white-rooted types. Carrot use has also varied across production areas, with a more predominant use as animal forage in the east but largely human use as a root vegetable in the west.

The origin of the cultivated carrot is clearly acknowledged to be purple in colour and in the Afghanistan region mainly because it was known to exist there well before reliable literature references or paintings gave evidence of Western carotene carrots. It is thought to have been in existence a couple of thousand years bc. (Brothwell)

It is thought the carotene carrot was domesticated in the regions around Turkey. The precise date is not known but thought to be before the 8th century. Traders and adventurers visiting Afghanistan took the carrot to other places including the Mediterranean countries.  It was probably the Romans who spread the carrot into western Europe, but it would not have been orange in colour at that time..

It has been suggested by several writers that a probable origin of the cultivated carrot is from a crossing of Wild Carrot (D Carota s. sp carota) and D Carota s. sp.maximus as many of the morphological characters of the cultivated carrot are intermediate between those of the afore mentioned sub species. (Thellung). 

This makes a lot of sense when the maximus grows in regions around the Mediterranean and an abundance of wild carota in Asia Minor (which is nearby). So it is possible that subspecies sativus might have originated there.  It is not clear where and when domestication took place, some commentators argue that if they did not originate in Afghanistan then they were first cultivated on the eastern Mediterranean, possibly Persia. 

What is clear is that the purple carrot existed in Central Asia and was brought west by the Arabs in about the 10th century.

Modern research has shown that there are two distinct groups of domesticated carrots from which the modern orange carrot derives, these are distinguished by their root colours and habits,  and the features of the leaves and flowers.


Nicolai Vavilov - 1924

While developing his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collecting seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world's largest collection of plant seeds.

In 1924 he and Dmitrii Bukinich undertook an expedition across Afghanistan, the routes of the expedition covered 5000 km. The members of expedition collected more than 7000 species of the plants. The report of the expedition was entitled "Zemledel'cheskii Afghanistan" (Agricultural Afghanistan) and included  a colour plate of purple, yellow and white carrots, has confirmed Vavilov’s assumption that Afghanistan is a place of origin of some of the most important agricultural plants, including carrot.

Vavilov colored carrots Afghanistan

Morphological characteristics lead to a division of the cultivated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) into two botanical varieties: var. atrorubens and var. sativus (Small 1978).

Distinguishing morphological features of eastern and western carrots (Heywood 1982)
Eastern Western
Roots branched, yellow, reddish purple to
purple-black, rarely yellowish orange.

Leaves slightly dissected greyish green

Flower in the first year.
Roots unbranched, yellow, orange or red,
occasionally white.

Leaves strongly dissected strong green,
sparsely hairy.

Normal biennial.

Eastern/Asiatic types  - (var altorubens) with purple, black or yellow anthocyanin roots, sometimes yellow,  often branched, with pubescent leaves giving a grey green appearance and slightly dissected, and a tendency for early flowering. The centre of diversity and origin of Eastern cultivated carrots is quite well established and probably commenced in the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region (Kashmir-Afghanistan) and around Turkestan. (Vavilov and Heywood) In the 1920's and 30′s Vavilov, the Russian biologist and his team were doing research in the context of the improvement of cultivated plants in the service of Soviet Agriculture. They discovered species of volunteer and hybrid carrots in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Their appearance differs from wild carrots under the western climate : their roots are meatier, bear little ramifications and most of all, their colour ranges from purple and pink to orangey yellow.

Purple carrot, with a yellow variant,  then spread to the Mediterranean and Western Europe where they responded well to cultivation and selection.  Pigmentation of eastern carrots is caused by the water soluble anthocyanin which upon cooking gives the liquid a brownish purple colour.  (purple carrot page here) (black carrot page here) (white carrot here) (yellow here)

Western carrot types  - (var sativus) with yellow, orange or red, occasionally white carotenoid roots which are unbranched; they are also distinguished by less pubescent bright yellowish green slightly hairy leaves which are strongly dissected, and less tendency to bolt without extended exposure to low temperatures.

The centre for diversity for the western carrot is the Anatolian region of Asia Minor (Turkey). and Iran. (Vavilov and Heywood)

These reflect cultivation in the Asia Minor/ Mediterranean basin (Turkey) and temperate Europe and can probably be classed as a secondary centre of origin. The majority of modern commercial cultivars belong to this group.   The yellow/orange colour of western carrots is caused by the plastid-bounded pigment carotenoids, carotene and xanthophyll. White carrots contain only traces of pigment, mainly carotene and xanthophyll. (Ladizinsky)

The combination of leaf and root differences between eastern and western carrots suggest that western carrots were not selected directly from eastern, but rather hybrids between early Mediterranean carrots, white rooted carrots and wild carrots, or mutations.

There is some evidence that hybridisation did not play an essential part of the genesis of the cultivated carrot and that there is strong reason to believe that mutation followed by selection was the main factor. (Banga 1963)


Orange CarrotsIt is not clear where or when the Western orange carrot first appeared.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the origin of orange carrot in its cultivated form (1) Vilmorin (1859) concluded that orange carrots were selected in Europe directly derived from wild carrots; (2) Small (1978)and Thellung (1927) discussed the possibility that orange carrot had a Mediterranean origin, resulting from a hybridization event with D. carota subsp. maximus ; (3) Banga (1957b) concluded that orange carrots were selected from yellow cultivated carrots; and (4) Heywood (1983) concluded that orange carrots were hybrids between European cultivated and wild carrots.

It should be noted that none of these hypotheses were based on genetic analysis, but rather were based on taxonomic interpretations, historical documents, contemporary paintings and geographical distribution of wild carrot and orange cultivated carrot. The orange carrot probably existed perhaps as early as the 6th century, and it is likely that it began as a mutation of the Asian purple carrot and was cultivated into the modern edible plant in the 16th century in the Netherlands.

Some say that eastern carrot gave rise to the western carrot, although the intermediate stages are far from clear, and this is highly improbable as Eastern carrots contain no carotene, and there is no red carrot variety evidenced in Afghanistan.   It is suggested that crosses between the Eastern and Western carrots (and perhaps Wild forms) in the regions of Asia Minor where Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean meet, led to the formation of the orange rooted carrot sub species.   Turkey is often cited as the birthplace of the hybrids (or mutations) of the two groups.  As is the case today, spontaneous hybridisation between wild and cultivated carrots is quite frequent and natural.

The evolution of the orange carrot is confusing because the colour cited by various authors as either orange or yellow are not always reliable. The latest genetic research shows conclusively that orange carrot was developed from yellow, domesticated varieties. It is interesting that the genetic research from the 21st century also provides support for Banga’s (1957b) hypothesis that orange root was selected out of yellow, domesticated carrots. This theory was put forward without the benefit of modern genetic techniques.

(Source: Iorizzo, Simon and others - Genetic Structure and Domestication of Carrot( daucus carota subsp. sativus) (apiaceae) - American Journal of Botany 100(5): 930–938. 2013.)

Did the Dutch "Invent" Orange Carrots to honour the House of Orange?

Red and yellow carrots started to appear in Europe in the 13th century and it is now known, from modern genetic research, that orange carrots were developed from those yellow varieties.

From the middle of the 16th century various carrot colours started to appear in art works, principally from the Dutch and Flemish regions, with paintings depicting market and kitchen scenes and including orange and other carrot colours.

It was probably the Dutch who developed the orange carrot in the 16th  century, as we now know from yellow varieties. Holland was the leading nation when it came to agricultural science at this time. As we now know from modern genetics it would take several decades to stabilise a new plant variety.

There is no documentary evidence that the Dutch "invented" orange carrots to honour their Royal Family, the House of orange. A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the development and stabilisation of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it!

As far as The Carrot Museum is concerned the Dutch developed and stabilised the orange carrot, in the 16th century. Subsequently the Dutch people adopted the colour orange and orange carrots as their national vegetable. There is no written evidence that this was also to honour their Royal Family. The point is that the orange carrot came first, Dutch Nationalism second.

In many Dutch paintings of the period the support for the House of Orange is expressed via a piece of cloth, for example you will see a ribbon around the male costume and/or an orange banner. It is also expressed via small bundles of orange (and other colours) carrots prominently displayed in the centre of paintings or more often in an obscure position, depending on the level of support for the House of Orange.  The term used for this support was "orangism" - There is an old Dutch saying to express orangism goes as following: Orange in the heart, said the farmer, and he put one yellow carrot (eene gele peen) on his hat.

To this day, many in the Netherlands genuinely like to believe that orange carrots were originally grown specifically as a tribute to the House of Orange. No matter how many times it is repeated and passed on through the generations it still remains pure folklore!!

There is still some evidence that orange rooted carrots were around long before. For instance a depiction in an ad 512 manuscript. - see here

(A bit of Dutch history - By 1785, the revolutionary and republican organisation, known as the Patriots were a significant political and military force in Holland. On September 15, 1785, William left the Hague, the seat of his garrison command as Stadholder, and went to his rural military stronghold of Nijmegen where most of his army was stationed. Despite this strategic gain by William, the Patriots interpreted his retreat as a victory since they now had effective control of the nation's capital. Basking in triumph, the Patriots proceeded to humiliate the House of Orange in every conceivable way. They banned the colour orange and hurled charges of treason at the Stadholder every day. They even went so far as to decree that CARROTS could not be displayed in the marketplace unless only the green tops were visible. Significantly, though, the Patriots never moved to strip the Prince of his garrison command, an inaction filled with prophecy. source and more detail here.)

Why are carrots orange? - Carrots are orange because they absorb certain wavelengths of light mcarrot crownore efficiently than others. Beta-carotene is the main pigment and is mainly absorbs in the 400-500nm region of the visible spectrum with a peak absorption at about 450nm. Carotenoids are one of the most important groups of natural pigments. They cause the yellow/orange colours of many fruit and vegetables. Though beta-carotene is most abundant in carrots it is also found in pumpkins, apricots and nectarines. Dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli are another good source.

In these the orange colour is masked by the green colour of chlorophyll. This can be seen in leaves; in autumn, when the leaves die, the chlorophyll breaks down, and the yellow/red colours of the more stable carotenoids can be seen.

Cultivation of carrot in ancient times is still much disputed, mainly because daucus carota inter-crosses freely with other carota types, producing many and varied variations.

How did they become Orange? - Genetic Research

The orange carrot probably existed perhaps as early as the 6th century, and it is likely that it began as a mutation of the Asian purple carrot and was cultivated into the modern edible plant in the 16th century in the Netherlands. From the 10th through to the 18th centuries, phenotypic selections of domesticated carrot root colour were, perhaps surprisingly to people today, mainly yellow and purple.

The latest genetic research shows conclusively that orange carrot was developed from yellow varieties.

"The fact that orange carrots used in this research form a sister clade with all other cultivated carrots (yellow, red, and purple) supports the idea that orange carrot was selected from cultivated carrot. Furthermore, genetic evidence suggests that two recessive genes, y and y2 , play a major role in the accumulation of yellow and orange carotenoids in the root (Just et al., 2009). This observation, along with the study referenced below, provides support for Banga’s (1957b) hypothesis that orange root colour was selected out of yellow, domesticated carrots."

(Source: Iorizzo, Simon and others - Genetic Structure and Domestication of Carrot( daucus carota subsp. sativus ) (apiaceae) - American Journal of Botany 100(5): 930–938. 2013.)

The Chinese Orange

There is some further research which finds evidence, based on simple sewquencing, which suggests results suggest that Chinese orange carrots may have undergone a specific, independent process different from that of Western orange, and derived from red (Eastern varieites).

Source - The unique origin of orange carrot cultivars in China Zhen-Guo Ma 2016 Euphytica (2016) 212:37–49

Previous Hypotheses -

Several hypotheses have been proposed in the past to explain the origin of orange carrots:

(1) Vilmorin (1859) concluded that orange carrots were selected in Europe directly derived from wild carrots;

(2) Small (1978) and Thellung (1927) discussed the possibility that orange carrot had a Mediterranean origin, resulting from a hybridization event with D. carota >subsp. maximus

(3) Banga (1957b) concluded that orange carrots were selected from yellow cultivated carrots; Banga proposed, on the basis of the appearance in European oil paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries that the Dutch selected and fixed orange varieties from yellow,  developing its colour from gradual selections of yellow carrots.

(4) Banga (1963) considered that the purple carrot spread into the Mediterranean in the 10th century where it is thought a yellow mutant appeared. The purple and yellow carrots both gradually spread into Europe in subsequent centuries. It is considered that the white carrot is also a mutant of yellow varieties.

(5) Heywood (1983) concluded that orange carrots were hybrids from a genepool involving yellow rooted eastern carrots, cultivated white-rooted derivatives of wild carrot and wild unselected populations of adjacent Daucus Carota subspecies in Europe and the Mediterranean. (V H Heywood - Relationship and Evolution in the Daucus Carota Complex - 1983)

(6) Mackevic (1932) states that orange-rooted carrots occurred in the Mediterranean, around Turkey, where cultivated carrot diversity was particularly prominent. (Mackevic 1932).

It should be noted that none of these hypotheses were based on genetic analysis, but rather were based on taxonomic interpretations, historical documents, and geographical distribution of wild carrot and orange cultivated carrot.

From the 10th through to the 18th century, phenotypic selections of domesticated carrot root colour were, perhaps surprisingly to people today, yellow and purple. Orange root colour, through the accumulation of high levels of carotenes, could be considered a secondary domestication event or a selection from cultivated carrot.

Dutch Origin - The orange cultivars "Horn horn" and "Long Orange" originated in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century. (Banga and Simon) and form the basis of many modern orange varieties.  Oddly white roots began to appear in paintings about the same time, perhaps implying that there had been little attempt by western Europeans to domesticate the wild, white rooted carrot until Moorish invaders came along with their coloured roots. 

A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century to honour William of Orange. Though the development and stabilisation of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honouring William of Orange had anything to do with it! Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the work an unexpected mutation was developed especially to thank King William I as a tribute to independence from Spain.  Dr T Fernie (Herbal Simples1875) reported  -  "The Dutch Government had no love for the House of Orange: and many a grave burgomaster went so far as to banish from his garden the Orange lily, and Marigold; also the sale of Oranges and Carrots was prohibited in the markets on account of their aristocratic colour."

There have been numerous arguments that the depiction of orange carrots in art works of the period proves that this was their first appearance. Art works alone are not considered to be good enough evidence as the colours used are not always true to type, and artists use colour effects in arranging their subjects. So in paintings, the differences between yellow and orange roots could be due to artistic features rather than to differences between cultivars. One can probably say with certainty that orange varieties were grown in the Netherlands at this time but this does not prove their origin in that locality. (Brandenberg)  Also, well before this time, there are clearly visible orange rooted carrots appearing in an ad 512 manuscript, an 11th century document, 14th century scripts and wall paintings in Italy in 1517. (see below) Also illustrations of various carrot colours appeared in many illuminated manuscripts, some of the surviving examples are shown here in a separate Museum page  - ancient manuscripts.
One of the earliest depictions of an orange carrot, in works of art - Pieter Aertsen Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha 1553 (oil on panel, Height: 126 cm (49.6 in). Width: 200 cm (78.7 in, location Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Possibly variety Rouge Longue sans coeur (Long Red Coreless)

Pieter Aertsen Carrots in Art

Here are a few more examples of the depiction of coloured carrots in the 16th/17thC (click to see larger images - see more art works here)

Beuckelaer 1564 Beuckelaer 1566 Cotan 1602 Cotan 1602

First depictions of Orange

It is commonly held that the Dutch "invented" Orange carrots - However! - There are compelling arguments for a much earlier, near eastern origin -  the Byzantine illustration in the Dioscorides codex, drawn in 512 ad shows quite clearly carrot plants with a thick, orange coloured root, indicating that carotene cultivars already existed at that time. In fact it is considered very likely that this Vienna Codex was copied from a much earlier manuscript, perhaps an illustrated manuscript owned by Theodosius II.(408-450 A.D.) If the carrot in the Codex is indeed orange, then the implication is clear that the Roman kitchen gardens contained orange rooted varieties that later became extinct.

The World Carrot Museum has the honour of having an article published in the renowned academic journal Chronica Horticulturae.  Co-authored with Jules Janick the James Troop Distinguished Professor in Horticulture, Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture, Purdue University.   The item is called Carrot History and Iconography a fascinating journey through the Carrot's development from Wild to Orange and beyond.  Full copy here (page 13 onwards). Extract here.

An alphabetical recension of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides was illustrated in 512 (Juliana Anicia Codex) for presentation to Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. A facsimile of this herbal with commentary by Otto Mazel has been published (Der Wiener Dioskurides, 1998, 1999). This most famous herbal includes 3 illustrations of cultivated and wild carrots.

The ad 512 images below show the first clear depictions of an orange rooted carrot. The figure left  is labelled Staphylinos Keras (or cultivated carrot) and portrays a deeply orange straight root with rosette of leaves that looks very close to our modern carrot. The centre figure, labelled Staphylinos Agrios (wild carrot) shows a plant in flower with slenderer orange roots. Far right, a figure labelled Gingidion, shows a flowering plant with an extremely fine yellow root and has been identified as Daucus gingidium. (Elaphoboscom (parsnip) is illustrated separately and therefore clearly distinguishes the two plants.)


Cultivated and wild carrots from the Juliana Anicia Codex of 512 a.d.

Staphylinos Keras
The cultivated carrot 312r
(Also appears in Codex Neapolitanus - 6thC - NAP 151L)

Staphylinos Agrios 313r
The wild carrot, but appears to be a primitive type of cultivated carrot
(Also appears in Codex Neapolitanus - 6thC - NAP 151R)

Gingidion  88r
The wild carrot (Daucus gingidium).
(Also appears in Codex Neapolitanus - 6thC - NAP 59R)

Above  - The oldest known manuscript of Dioscorides work is the Juliana Anicia Codex (ca. 512 A.D.), housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Listed as Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Graecus 1., it is better known as “Vienna Dioscorides,” the oldest and most valuable work in the history of botany and pharmacology. Research has shown that the colour red and orange was usually achieved through the use of minium (lead oxide)  - This compound's Latin name minium originates from the Minius River in northwest Spain where it was first mined.

Lead(II,IV) oxide was used as a red pigment in ancient Rome, where it was prepared by calcination of white lead. In the ancient and medieval periods it was used as a pigment in the production of illuminated manuscripts, and gave its name to the minium or miniature, a style of picture painted with the colour.

Since an original copy of Dioscorides herbal has never been found, we cannot be certain that it included illustrations. It is certain, however, that, in 512 A.D., a Byzantine artist illustrated Dioscorides herbal for presentation to Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. The artist seems to have based his work on illustrations from the Rhizotomicon of Crateuas of Pergamon (1st century B.C.).

Here are the words which accompany the Dioscorides image - In 1655 John Goodyer made this English translation of Dioscorides work from a manuscript copy, and in 1933 Robert T Gunther edited this. This was probably not corrected against the Greek, and this version of Goodyer's Dioscorides makes no such attempt either.:

Book 3 Chapter 59 -

The wild Staphylinos [Some call him Keraskome, the Romans Carota, Pastinaca also, the Egyptians Babibyru, Africans Sicha] Gingidion which has similar leaves, but broad and somewhat bitter, a erect, rough stem, this bears an umbel like dill, to the white blossoms, but in the middle a purple-coloured, fungus similar [and saffron-coloured like] entities are located.

The root is finger thick, a span long, fragrant, it is eaten cooked. The same drunk or suppositories inserted in the promoter of menstruation, it is potion also a good way against urinary retention, dropsy, and pleurisy against poisonous bites and stings Animals, it says that those who take him in advance, not by poisonous animals attacked. He also carried the pregnancy.

The root, however, which of course diuretic is irritating to both the cohabitation, but also raises them in the suppository is inserted, the embryo also. The finely pushed leaves, with honey applied, clean cancerous ulcers. The built Staphylinos is better to eat and also the same, but is of minor effect.

The following modern interpretation made in June 2000 by Tess Anne Osbaldeston offers a more accessible text to today’s readers, as the ‘englished’ copy by Goodyer is generously endowed with post-medieval terminology.


SUGGESTED: Staphylinum [Pliny], Pastinaca sativa prima,
Pastinaca erratica, Carota [Fuchs], Daucus officinarum [Bauhin],
Daucus carota var sativa [Linnaeus] — Carrot
Daucus carota var sylvestris — Wild Carrot

Staphylinum has leaves like gingidium, only broader and somewhat bitter. It has a rough upright stalk with a tuft similar to dill on which are white flowers, and in the midst something small of a purple colour and of almost a saffron colour. The root is the thickness of a finger, twenty centimetres long, sweet smelling and edible (boiled as a vegetable). The seed induces the
menstrual flow, taken as a drink (or inserted as a pessary), and is good in liquid medicines for frequent painful urination, dropsy, and pleurisy, as well as for the bites and strikes of venomous creatures.

They also say that those who take it beforehand shall experience no assault from wild beasts. It encourages conception. The root (also being urinary) is applied to stir up sexual intercourse [aphrodisiac]. The leaves, pounded into small pieces with honey and applied, clean ulcers that spread.

The garden pastinaca is fitter to be eaten, and is good for the same purposes, working more weakly. It is also called cerascomen; the Romans call it carota, some pastinaca rustica, the Egyptians, babiburu, and the Africans sicham.

In around 950, Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq's produced a cookbook, the most comprehensive work of its kind. This traditional cookbook with more than 600 recipes using medieval ingredients and dishes from the luxurious cuisine of medieval Islam is also a rare guide to the contemporary culinary culture. He described the carrots used in his recipes thus:

Jazar - carrots. Of the cultivated varieties

1. Red-orange (jazar ahmar) carrot literally 'red', described as juicy, tender, and delicious. Poets compare it to carnelian, rubies, flames of fire, and coral reeds.

2. Yellow Carrot (jazar asfar), thicker and denser in texture than the red.

3. White Carrot (jazar abyad) similar to parsnips, aromatic, and deliciously sharp in taste. It is also described as having a pleasant crunch.

For more details on the cookbook and the 10th century recipes using carrots, there is a separate page in the Carrot museum. Here.

There is subsequently an 11th century manuscript (known as Pseudo.-Apuleius, Dioscorides) which also shows an orange rooted variety. Much more background information, including a full translation of the script together with a larger photo are included on a separate page here.

The late 11th century witnessed this intriguing manuscript named the Bodlean 130, Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius, which illustrates carrot root, leaves and flower quite accurately with yellow-orange roots (left hand image). The script indicated that the Greeks called it stafi limagriam, others called it giger or eggon, the Romans called it udonaulion, the Carthaginians called it siccansade, the Calabria (Italy) called it pastinaca silvatica. The text states: “It grows in stony places and mounds; for women who suffer at childbirth and are not purged. With Herba pastinaca, cooked, together with the same water in which it was cooked, you take 30 peppercorns; mix together and give to drink; she will be purged. The same recipe as written above also works against toothache.” 

Two manuscripts, Ashmole 1462 labelled Pastinaca Silvatica (centre), a yellow/orange root and Ashmole 1431 labelled Pastinaca (right), a darker red root, contain essentially the same text.


Orange and reddish carrots from 11th and 15th century manuscripts

MS Bodley 130 - 11th century script - Pseudo Apuleian text

MS Ashmole 1462 Script - Pseudo Apuleian text

MS Ashmole 1431 - Bodelian Library Script

Herba pastinaca, Pseudo-Apuleius, Dioscorides, from Bury St Edmonds, England. Pastinaca Silvatica, Bodlean Image Ashmole 1462 Pastinaca, Bodlean Image MS Ashmole 1431

Important Copyright Notice: The images (above) appear with the kind permission of the Bodleian Library and are copyright and any use is restricted by law. Any unauthorised copying or reproduction will constitute an infringement of copyright.

The script is held by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University as part of its collection of illuminated mediaeval manuscripts.

The Tacuinum Sanitatis

The exquisitely illustrated manuscripts known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis were first commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the last decades of the 14th century.  It is a medieval handbook on wellness, based on the Taqwin al‑sihha تقوين الصحة ("Tables of Health"), an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad. Aimed at a cultured lay audience, the text exists in several variant Latin versions, the manuscripts of which are characteristically so profusely illustrated that one student called the Tacuinum "a trecento picture book," only "nominally a medical text". Though describing in detail the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants, it is far more than a herbal giving information on some 280 health-related items, in particular food and especially vegetables and fruits. The Vienna 2644 Tacuinum (below left) which contain the most accurate depictions, includes some 26 vegetables, 33 fruits, 3 flowers, 21 culinary and medicinal herbs, and 1 mushroom (truffles) in addition to 9 cereals.

tacuinum vienna carrot

tacuinum sanitatis carrots 15th century carrots

tacuinum roma carrots

Vienna 2644 folio 28r

Carrot (possibly parsnip, based on leaf form) labelled pastinace, a gardener harvests very long and narrow, pale yellow roots of a species, which some authorities have identified as parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, on the basis of the colour of the roots and the shape of the leaves. Perhaps a little too orange coloured to be parsnips.


Ms.3054 fol.9

Harvesting Parsnips and Carrots, from 'Tacuinum Sanitatis' (vellum), Italian School, (15th century) / Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen, France


Roma 4182 folio 49r. In a similar scene to the one far left and also labelled pastinace a gardener is busy harvesting a root crop, the foliage of which is comprised of many small, slightly dentate leaflets. The long, thin orange roots, low, intermingled in the foreground row and in the harvested pile clearly represent carrot, The Latin text reports that pastinace stimulates sexual intercourse but slows down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, is the best.

The Tacuinum is also of interest in the study of agriculture and cooking; for example, some of the earliest identifiable images of a plant considered to be the carrot are found in it.

There are six copies still in existence which are a rich source of information on cultivated plants of the late medieval period as the vivid, large images depict plants growing and being harvested in situ.  Three of the copies include an illustration of the harvest of an orange rooted plant, entitled “Pastinace”. In the opinion of the Carrot Museum these can only be images of a carrot, notwithstanding the confusing nomenclature and unintended confusion with parsnip.  If the illustrators were minded to depict a parsnip then surely the colour would have strayed towards a paler, if not white pigment. Some observers have deduced that one of the images is Parsnip, based on the leaf formation. However, if the images are all supposed to be copies of the one original, they must all be of the same plant, carrot or parsnip. In the opinion of Carrot Museum and based on the distinct orange root colour they are all carrot. 

The images are clearly very similar in form and structure and therefore intended to be copies of the one original, with only minor artistic variations as each one was presumably made by different artists. These manuscripts were based on an 11th century Arabic manuscript known as the Taqwim al-Sihha bi al-Ashab al- Sitta (Rectifying Health by Six Causes), which was a guide for healthy living written by the Christian physician and philosopher Abu al- Hasan al-Mukhtar ibn al-Hasan ibn ‘Abdun ibn Sa’dun Ibn Butlan (d. 1063), who was born and educated in Baghdad and whose travels took him to localities that are today in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. The Taqwim was a guide for healthy living, based on ancient philosophical concepts of Greek sciences. It summarized in tabular form information on some 280 health-related items, in particular food and especially vegetables and fruits.

In addition to its importance for the study of medieval medicine, the Tacuinum is also of interest in the study of agriculture and cooking; for example, the earliest identifiable image of the carrot - a modern plant - is found in it.

The evolution of the orange carrot is confusing because the colour cited by various authors as either orange or yellow are not always reliable. It has long been held that Moorish invaders first brought the purple, and perhaps yellow, carrot to Spain in the 12th century and the purple is recorded in France and Germany by the 13th century. However, an illustrated English translation of Dioscorides' manuscript from late in the eleventh century titled De virtutibus bestiarum in arte medicinae shows what appears to be a purple carrot but little definitive evidence for the carrot, as a culinary plant, in England has been found until the 16th century.

In 1400  another orange rooted illustration of Pastinaca appeared, this time in an Italian herbal, HerbaPastinaca Ilustration 1400 Lombardyrium Apuleii, Lombardy.(right)

(Source  :Yale Medical Library. Manuscript. 18 [Herbarium Apuleii and other works]. [ca. 1400] MS 18 fol. [33v] )

A Feat of Gardening by Master John Gardener (c 1400) does not list carrots among the vegetables which he describes but Fromonds, "Herbys necessary for a gardyn by letter" (c. 1500) does include "karettes." 

William Turners, The Names of Herbes (1548) writes; "Pastinaca is called…in englishe a Carot…Carettes growe in al countries in plenty."

In France, Ruellius in De natura stirpium (1536) describes purple and red carrots and in Germany, Fuchs, in De historia stirpium (1542) illustrates red and yellow carrots, although the red is definitely shaded towards purple. The half-long carrot, which eventually becomes the horn carrot (believed to be orange), is first described by Matthiolus in Commentarii secuno (1558).

The famous ceiling paintings in Villa Farnesina, Rome are dated to 1517. Ten illustrated episodes are located in spandrels surrounded by festoons of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, painted by Giovanni Martini da Udine (1487-1564) that include over 160 species of plants, all remarkably preserved.  The decorations are referred to as the Loggia of Psyche, based on the heavenly adventures of Cupid and Psyche. The work is important in the history of art and botany since it records, in full colour, species which existed at the time.  An orange carrot appears twice, together with a white parsnip. (more information in a separate Carrot Museum page here)

Spandrel 1 (extract)
Venus shows Psyche to Cupid
Orange carrot and parsnip

Full photo here

Spandrel 3 (extract)
Venus, Ceres, and Juno
Orange and purple carrot
Full photo here

The images relating to the Villa Farnesina appear with kind permission of Marialba Italia and is copyright and any use is restricted by law. Any unauthorised copying or reproduction will constitute an infringement of copyright.

1487 - The Garden of Health (below)Garden of Health 1487

Augsburg, Germany.   .(pg 189)  Printed by Hamsen Schönsperger.

This contains a recipe, including carrot, for a "good drink to cure Dyspnea" - Difficulty in breathing, often associated with lung or heart disease and resulting in shortness of breath.  Also called air hunger.

Note the root is coloured orange in the original manuscript. It is doubtful that this particular colour was chosen at random. The title text names it Wild Carrot.

Click on picture for full text in German.


The Etymology of Orange & Carrot

Orange - Several colours of carrots have existed for over a thousand years. One problem which exists is that it is difficult to determine when the term "orange" as a descriptor of a colour in general, first appeared in the English language. Therefore it is quite likely that carrots were actually orange for many hundreds of years before they were recognised by the name "orange" in the 1500's. Before that they may well be described as "light red" or "deep yellow".

Orange is the definition of a colour between red and yellow. What this etymology tells us is that the colour was named after the fruit, and not the other way around. If you go back far enough in the literature, you can find really weird passages like one from Canterbury Tales where Chaucer describes someone's complexion as being 'between a red and a yellow.'

Carrot - The word is first recorded in English circa 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte,itself from Late Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόνor karōton, originally from the Indo-European root *ker- (horn), due to its horn-like shape. In Old English, carrots (typically white at the time) were not clearly distinguished from parsnips: the two were collectively called moru or more (from Proto-Indo-European *mork- "edible root", cf. German Möhre).
Various languages still use the same word for "carrot" as they do for "root"; e.g. Dutch wortel.

The first recorded use of orange as a colour name in English was in 1512, in a will now filed with the Public Record Office. Before this word was introduced to the English-speaking world, the colour was referred to as the Dutch ġeolurēad (yellow-red). (Source: Oxford English Dictionary,2011.)

Some of the earliest records in proper English date to the early and mid 15th century. One source (John Mirfield's Sinonoma Bartholomei) defines the orange: "Citrangulum pomum, orenge" and another (John Paston, in his letters) connects the orange with pregnancy cravings, saying of a certain "Dame Elysabet Calthorpe"  - her husband William says that she "is a fayir lady and longyth for orangys, thow she be not wyth chyld."

Another early reference was in 1557 when we see the word used to mean the colour of the fruit. The colour is mentioned in the Statutes at Large of Great Britain, volume VI.

"Coloured cloth of any other colour or colours,.hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange."

The word orange itself was introduced to English through the Spanish word “naranja”, which came from the Sanskrit word nāraṅga, which literally means “orange tree”.  The French (or English) dropped the leading “n” and eventually we got the word “orange".  The orange carrot is believed to have developed and stabilised by Dutch breeders in the 1500's from seeds and plants brought by Arab traders, these may have come via Spain and Portugal..

In the early 16th century, the word orange gradually started being used to not only refer to the fruit, but also what we now know of as the colour orange.

Therefore, it is quite possible that orange carrots did exist before the 16th century, but there was no word to describe that colour, so carrots were often described as red or yellow and other variations of those colours. e.g. yellow-red.

Here is an approximate history of the word (Source, via The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.) -

"orang·y, orang·ey (-n-j) adj. Word History: Oranges imported to China from the United States reflect a journey come full circle, for the orange had worked its way westward for centuries, originating in China, then being introduced to India, and travelling on to the Middle East, into Europe, and finally to the New World. The history of the word orange keeps step with this journey only part of the way. The word is possibly ultimately from Dravidian, a family of languages spoken in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. The Dravidian word or words were adopted into the Indo-European language Sanskrit with the form nraga. As the fruit passed westward, so did the word, as evidenced by Persian nrang and Arabic nranj. Arabs brought the first oranges to Spain, and the fruit rapidly spread throughout Europe. The important word for the development of our term is Old Italian melarancio, derived from mela, “fruit,” and arancio, “orange tree,” from Arabic nranj. Old Italian melarancio was translated into Old French as pume orenge, the o replacing the a because of the influence of the name of the town of Orange, from which oranges reached the northern part of France.

The final stage of the odyssey of the word was its borrowing into English from the Old French form orenge. Our word is first recorded in Middle English in a text probably composed around 1380, a time preceding the arrival of the orange in the New World."

Before the English-speaking world was familiar with the fruit, the colour we now call orange was referred to in Old English as geoluhread, which translates into Modern English as yellow-red.The word “orange” was adopted after the eponymous fruit was introduced to English via the Spanish word naranja, which came from the Sanskrit word nāraṅga. 

Geoluhread is close to "gul-og-rød" (danish) which means "yellow and red". Additionally there is the word "Gulerod", which actually means carrot (again there's the orange connection)  It wasn’t until 1544 that the use of the word as a colour, as derived from the fruit, made an appearance in English common usage. It is likely that this adoption of the word to describe a colour is tied to the popularity of the orange as a fruit, initially known to merchants and royalty, together with their servants and later to the masses.

A town in Southern France, Arausio, founded by the Romans in 35 BC, was classically pronounced "Aurenja." Predictably, that became "orange" once the French conflated naranj with or (gold color!). When a man named William the Silent from Nassau inherited the rule in Orange in 1544, he became William 1 of Orange, the founder of the House of Orange-Nassau. He led the Dutch in Revolt against the Spanish in the late 1500s, and they eventually won their independence in the form of the Dutch Republic.

The word "carrot" was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, itself from Late Latin carōta, from Greek καρωτόν karōton, originally from the Indo-European root *ker- (horn), due to its horn-like shape. In Old English, carrots (typically white at the time) were not clearly distinguished from parsnips, the two being collectively called moru or more (from Proto-Indo-European *mork- "edible root", German for carrot is Möhre). Various languages still use the same word for "carrot" as they do for "root"; e.g. in Dutch it is wortel.

The 1551 edition of the "Libro de Agricultura" by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera has this to say about orange carrots.

Of carrots and parsnips. Platina puts these two kinds of roots in the same chapter even though they are different in their colours. Parsnips are white like turnips, except that they are thinner and longer. Carrots have the appearance of turnips, neither more nor less, except that some are the colour of oranges; others are so red that they turn dark.

Delas zanahorias y chirivias. Estas dos maneras de rayzes pone el Platina en un mismo capi. aun que ellas son differentes en sus colores: que las chirivias son blancas como los nabos salvo que son mas delgadas y largas. Las zanahorias son de la hechura de los nabos ni mas ni menos: salvo ser unas de color de naranjas: otras muy coloradas tanto que tornan en prietas. (Full extract here)  Full document here.

A further very early manuscript clearly shows an orange root, from Germany. Adam Lonitzer a German botanist, noted for his 1577 revised version of Eucharius Rösslin's herbal, wrote Kreuterbuch including -  "Pastenachen Mören Pastinaca sativa, & sylvestris". (Photo, compliments of the Smithsonian Digital Collection of Early manuscripts.)

Adam Lonitzer - Early Orange Carrot Illustration

Adam Lonitzer - Frankfurt 1582

The Foure Bookes of Husbandrie, collected by Conrad Heresbach 1577 make reference to Red and Yellow Carrots thus:

Redde and Yellowe Carrettes - You have also in this Garden red Carrets, I have some Yellowe Carrets. Plinie inviteth that Tiberius was so in love with this roote, that he caused Carrets to be yeerley brought him out of Germanie, from the Castell of Geluba standing upon the Rhine.

It delighteth in colde places, and is sowed before the kalendes of Marche, and of some in September; but the third and the best kind of sowing as some thinke, is in August.

There is also Wilde Carret, a kind of Parsnep. There are those that suppose it to be the yellowe roote, that is so common in Germanie, they are to be sowed in March. It is general that they be wello troden uppon, or kept cut, so the end the rootes may growe the greater."  (Copy of original page here)

By the 17th century both the purple and yellow carrot are well established in England. John Gerard writes in the Herball (1597):

"The root is long, thicke and single, of a faire yellow colour, pleasant to be eaten, and very sweet in taste. There is another kind hereof like to the former in all parts, and differeth from it only in the colour of the root, which in this is not yellow, but of a blackish red colour."

This seems to indicate that the yellow carrot starts to replace the purple by the beginning of the 17th century. Giacomo Castelvetro writes in The Fruits, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614): “We prepare salads from pink and yellow carrots, roasted or boiled in the same way, and turnips as well."

Parkinson writes in Paradisi in sol (1629); "the roote is round and long, thicke above and small below, wither red or yellow, either shorter or longer, according to his kinde; for there is one kinde, whose roote is wholly red quite throughout; another whose root is red without for a pretty way inward, but the middle is yellow." He describes several yellow varieties with both long and short roots saying that one of the long yellow varieties is; "of a deepe gold yellow colour, and is the best."

In1665 The Compleat Herball by Robert Lovell of Oxford contained "the summe of ancient and moderne authors, based on observations from the Physick garden in Oxford."  This again appears to be a reworking of earlier works with a few enhancements. A fuller extract from the work is given here (pdf).

Lovell said "The carrot is red and yellow. The root of the yellow is temperately hot and something moist, of little nourishment, and that not very good, it's not so windie as the turnep, nor passeth so soon through the belly. The red is of like faculty, the seed of both is hot and dry. The seed breaketh and consumeth windiness and provoketh urine, as that of the wild carrots. The root is usually boyled with fat flesh and eaten."

One of the first written evidences of an orange carrot, particularly written in English (and therefore cannot be misinterpreted during translation) , written in English - 1677 - A Catalogue of Seeds, Plants &c Sold by Will’m: Lucas at the Naked Boy near Strand Bridge London (C. 1677) - Carrots, red, orang andC. C. Meinhold & Söhne,Dresden 1850 - Carrot - Wellcome Library Image yellow. (note: orang is how it was spelled) (full list here)

One of the earliest known recipes for a Marmelet of Oranges (close to what we know as marmalade today) comes from the recipe book of Eliza Cholmondeley around 1677.

Another good reliable written evidence is the Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis – A Catalogue of plants in the Physical Garden at Edinburgh by James Sutherland intendent of said garden was published in 1683.This work makes reference to Orange, Red, Yellow and White carrots, together with the common Wild Carrot. It and also distinguishes them from Parsnip as a separate plant.(See extract here). This is a very useful record as it shows what actually existed in the botanic garden in Edinburgh.

Another reference appears in 1683 - John Reid's "Scots Gard'ner" full text here - "orenge carrot".  Reid also refers to "Of currans, the great red-Dutch, the white-Dutch, the great black."  Currans is the old Gaelic name for carrots.

1688 Systema horti-culturae or The Art of Gardening By John Woolridge, Gent - "There are two sorts of them, the Yellow, and the Orange, or more red: the last of which is by much the better."

It also lists seeds available for sale, and again Orange Carrots receive a mention, here. (p271)

John Worlidge or John Woolridge (1640–1700) was a noted British agriculturalist, who lived in Petersfield, Hampshire, England. He was considered a great expert on rural affairs, and one of the first British agriculturalists to discuss the importance of farming as an industry.Worlidge's Systema Agriculturæ, or the Mystery of Husbandry discovered ... by J. W., Gent., was first published in 1668.

In Batty Langley's New Principles of Gardening (1728) he describes the three primary varieties of carrots - Yellow (or Orange), Red and Wild as follows:

Of Carrots we have three kinds, viz. The yellow or orange carrot, the red Carrot, and the wild or white Carrot; of which the yellow is the most valuable, called in Greek staphilinus, in Latin Pastinaca sativa tenuifolia, in High Dutch Geelruben, in Low Dutch Geel Peen, Pooteen of Wrtelen, in French Carotte, in Italian Pastinaca, in Spanish Canahoria and in English yellow Carrot.

The root is of an orange (rather than a Limon) Colour both without and within. I have had carrots of this kind that have been twenty two inches in length and of twelve inches in circumference. And although Carrots of a very large size are much valued by many, I cannot recommend them as much as the middling size which are always much sweeter and less insipid.

The Red Carrot is of the same form, both in Leaves, Stalk, Seed and Root, but very rarely grows so large. Its Leaves are of a dark reddish green, and its root of a blackish red without, and yellowish within; and is very seldom cultivated in our gardens.

(This is probably a reference to the purple carrot, which by this time is disappearing in England.)

The Wild Carrot is called in Greek staphilinus agrios, in Latin Pastinaca Sylvestris tenuifolia by some Daucus, in High Dutch wild Pastenen, Vogel nest, in Low Dutch Vogels nest and wild Caroten, Crookens cruyt, in French Pastenade Sauvage, in England wild Carrot, and after the Dutch Birds Nest. the roots are very small and a mean length and often white."

The Compleat Book of Husbandry, Volume three by Thomas Hale, 1758, which "contained rules for the whole business of farmer in cultivating, planting and stocking of land", gives a rare reference to the colours of carrots and orange in particular.

"Carrot - The root is long and thick, varying in colour from deepest orange to the palest straw...........There is a variety of colour in the roots of the carrot, the gardeners have hence made what they call three principal kinds: These they call, 1. The dark red carrot. 2. The orange carrot. And 3. the white carrot.  The first and last of these terms are somewhat improper, the first kind being only a very deep orange, and the other a very pale yellow. The first is most esteemed. The white kind is more common in France and Italy than here; and is the sweetest and finest flavoured of them all. The farmer is to cultivate not that which is best, but what people think so; and therefore he is to chuse the deep red, commonly called the Sandwich carrot."

Whatever the origins of orange carrots, the Long Orange Dutch cultivar,  is commonly held to be the progenitor of the orange Horn carrot varieties (Early Scarlet Horn, Early Half Long, Late Half Long). All modern, western carotene varieties ultimately descend from these varieties. The Horn Carrot derives from the Netherlands town of Hoorn in the neighbourhood of which it was probably developed. Horenshce Wortelen (carrots of Hoorn) were common on the Amsterdam market in 1610.  The earliest English seedsmen list Early Horn and Long Orange.

Bradley, in the Dictionarium Botanicum (1728) writes: "we have four or five Sorts of 'em, but I esteem the Orange-Carrot, and a kind which they have in the Isle of Wight, to be the best; besides which, we have the white Carrot, which one would not be without for the Rarity of it."  In Batty Langley's New Principles of Gardening (1728) he describes the two primary varieties of carrots this way: "Yellow Carrots…The root is of an Orange (rather than a limon) Colour." He also records that the root of this carrot is 22" long and 12 ½" in diameter, a huge root by today’s standards. . The red carrot he describes as; "its Root of a Blackish red without, and yellowish within; and is very seldom cultivated in our Gardens." - This is probably in reference to the purple carrot, which by this time is disappearing in England.

By 1763 carrots were classed as one of four varieties. The long orange, and the three varieties of Horn carrot; Late Half Long, Early Half Long and Early Scarlet Horn. The modern carrots all derive from these four types (Simmonds, Evolution of Crop Plants, 1995).

In 1768, Philip Miller writes in The Gardeners Dictionary:

"There are several varieties of the Garden Carrots, which differ in the colour of their roots, and these variations may be continued, where there is proper care taken no to mix the different sorts together in the same garden; but the Orange Carrot is generally esteemed in London, where the yellow and the white Carrots are seldom cultivated. The dark red, or purple Carrot, I take to be a distinct sort from either of these; but as it is much tenderer, I have not had an opportunity of seeing it in the flower, for the roots were all destroyed by the first frosts in autumn. The seeds of this sort were sent me from Aleppo, which succeeded very well, the roots were not so large as those of the other sorts of Carrots, and were of a purple colour, very like that of a deep-coloured Radish; they were very tender and sweet; the leaves were finer cut than those of the common Carrot, and were less hairy.

The second sort is commonly cultivated in gardens for the kitchen, and the different varieties of it are, in some places, esteemed, though in London, the Orange Carrot is preferred to all the other. The yellow and the white Carrots are seldom cultivated. The dark red, or purple carrot, I take it to be a different variety from these, but it is much tenderer. The seeds were sent to from Aleppo (largest city in Syria). They succeeded very well but the roots were not as large as other carrots. They were tender and sweet with finer leaves." (Philip Miller: Gardeners Dictionary. London 1768) (source

John  Randolph in his Treatise of Gardening, 1793 wrote "Carrots are of two sortes, the Orange and white, the former being generally used, tho' the latter is much the sweetest kind"

Some images of the carrots varieties which Vilmorin described in "The Vegetable Garden" in 1856 and give some idea of shapes and size of the "modern" carrots, developed by the Dutch :

Vilmorin 1856 early half long nantes carrot

Vilmorin 1856 Dutch Horn carrot

Vilmorin 1856 English Horn carrot

Vilmorin 1856 half long danvers carrot


Summarised Timeline of Cultivated Carrot (documentary evidence)

Time Period




Afghanistan and vicinity

Purple and yellow


Iran and northern Arabia

Purple, Red and yellow


Syria and North Africa

Purple, Red and yellow



Purple and yellow


Italy and China

Purple and red


France, Germany, The Netherlands

Red, Yellow & White



Red & white

1500's Northern Europe Orange, Yellow & Red



Purple and yellow


North America

Orange and white



Orange and Red

Sources - Rubatzsky and Banga. Also Carrot Museum's Curator research material Reference material is here.

Notes: Red was often confused with purple.  Orange carrots may have been around well before 1100 - see above. The above listing is a "best guess" as there is much conflicting evidence.

Carrots were also probably White throughout these periods, often confused with Parsnips (also white). There was (and still is!) enormous confusion when trying to sort out the individual histories of carrots and parsnips. The Latin name for the parsnip genus is thought to come from, meaning "food". This would further explain the historical confusion of the two vegetables, as well as offer a testament to how important they both were in the ancient diet.

The major sources of reference works quoted above are given below:

A complete list of reference material is listed on a separate page - here

Vilmorin , M. 1859 . L’hérédité dans les végétaux. In M. Vilmorin [ed.], Notice sur l’amelioration des plantes par la semis, 5–29. Librairie Agricole, Paris, France.

Thellung , A. 1927 . Die Abstammung der Gartenmöhre ( Daucus carota subsp. sativus ) und der Gartenrettichs ( Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus ). Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis ( Beiheft [supplement] 46 ): 1 – 7 .

O Banga, 
1957 The development of the original European carrot material.

1957 (b) Origin of the European cultivated carrot.
1963. Main types of the western carotene carrot and their origin.
1963: Origin and distribution of the western cultivated carrot.

E Small A numerical taxonomy of the Daucus Carota Complex 1978

V H Heywood - Relationship and Evolution in the Daucus Carota Complex - 1983

NI Vavilov 1926 Studies in the Origin of cultivated plants

Agricultural Afghanistan 1924  NI Vavilov and DD BukinichVavilov 1924

J Smarrt & N W Simmonds Evolution of Crop Plants  1976

W A. Brandenburg Possible relationships between wild and cultivated carrots (Daucus carota L.) in the Netherlands 1981
Use of Paintings from the 16th to 19th Centuries to Study the History of Domesticated Plants 1986

V I Mackevic,. The carrot of Afghanistan. 1929

P W Simon Carrots and Related Umbelliferae 1999 (also various USDA publications authored by  PW Simon)

Carrot, Daucus carota L. In "Genetic Improvement of Vegetable Crops", (ed. G. Kalloo, B.O. Bergh), Pergamon Press, Oxford, U.K., pp. 479-484 (1993).

The manuscript is known as the Vienna Dioscurides, or Dioscurides Codex Vindobonensis Kew Gardens Library

D R. Brothwell, P Brothwell Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples 1968 ISBN 0801857406, 9780801857409

 Plant Evolution Under Domestication 1998SBN 0412822105, 9780412822100

Soufflet-Freslon V1, Jourdan M, Clotault J, Huet S, Briard M, Peltier D, Geoffriau E.  Functional gene polymorphism to reveal species history: the case of the CRTISO gene in cultivated carrots.

Full reference material is here.

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