Heritage and Heirloom Carrots

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Main Information from UK Heritage Seed Library Database June 2016 - Website Here

The definition and use of the word heirloom to describe plants is fiercely debated.

One school of thought places an age or date point on the cultivars. For instance, one school says the cultivar must be over 100 years old, others 50 years, and others prefer the date of 1945, which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant could have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties It was in the 1970s that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade. Some heirloom varieties are much older; some are apparently pre-historic.

Another way of defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of the word heirloom in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.

Additionally, there is another category of cultivars that could be classified as "commercial heirlooms": cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and were of such merit that they have been saved, maintained and handed down – even if the seed company has gone out of business or otherwise dropped the line. Additionally, many old commercial releases have actually been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.

Regardless of a person's specific interpretation, most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated.

The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest for older, more unusual types of carrot. It's now possible to buy carrots of all shapes, sizes, and colours if you look a little beyond the usual places. And of course, there's vastly more variety available if you grow them yourself from seed.

However, there's an important point to make: these 'new' carrots are in no way a modern invention or the result of genetic modification gone wild. In most cases they're simply a return to older heritage varieties that have been kept alive by traditional growers and enthusiasts, although there has of course been continued progress through selective breeding along the way.

An heirloom variety (or heritage, the phrase seems to be interchangeable),  is an old cultivar of a plant used for food that is grown and maintained by gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic minority communities of the Western world. These were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

Heirloom plant species are vegetables, flowers, and fruits grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation, says Barbara Richardson, horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind.

Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two selected varieties, sometimes resulting in vigorous plants that yield more than heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated instead of hybrid, and saved and handed down through multiple generations of families. More information on Wikipedia here.

Why choose Heirloom/Heritage Carrots?

Many heirloom vegetables have been saved for decades and even centuries because they are the best performers in home and market gardens. Storage or ability to transport wasn’t a concern so flavour ruled.

Many gardeners prefer heirloom vegetables because they are open-pollinated, which means you can save your own seed to replant from year to year.

Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,” says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Also, with heirloom vegetables you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases. Plants are much more adaptable than most of us realize.

Another advantage of heirloom vegetables is that they are “less uniform” than hybrids, which means they often don’t ripen all at once.

Commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids because they can pick the crop in one fell swoop. But for home gardeners, a gradual supply of fresh produce is usually preferable to the glut of the all-at-once harvest that many hybrids provide.

Many heirlooms have wonderful histories of how they came to the nation where they are now grown. In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been grown for many centuries all around the world. What a great feeling to be connected through tiny, magical seeds to so many other gardeners from so long ago!

Flavour is not necessarily high on the attributes which modern breeders seek.  Modern Hybrid breeders aim to derive cultivars with early maturation, high yield, high beta-carotene content; the ability to set seeds under poor conditions; uniform root size, shape and colour; small tops, tender roots; improved flavour, texture, sugar content and dry matter; resistance to cracking and breaking during harvest, roots that taper uniformly, slowness to bolt; tolerance of poor soil and climate; wide adaptability; resistance to disease, especially leaf blight, black rot, powdery mildew, bacterial soft rot, and and to pests including caterpillars and carrot fly.

Important Note - The chemical constituents of carrot are not there by chance, but perform a function. Many constituents of the orange carrot we now cultivate are also in the white root of the wild carrot, Queen Anne's lace, from which our carrot was developed. This is true of falcarinol, falcarindiol, and myristicin. Carotene (present in small amounts in Queen Anne's lace) has been increased by centuries of selection. Volatile oils have been decreased in this process. Plant scientists must continue to monitor all known constituents nutritive and non-nutritive - as new cultivars of the carrot are developed to keep our vegetables nutritious and safe. Plant breeding for the sake of high yields, appearance, and keeping quality will not be sufficient.

Please Note: The following information, historical listings and images have been kindly supplied by The Heritage Seed Library, UK. This is much appreciated and acknowledged. Please do not not reproduce this information without proper referencing. Photos (below) also compliments of Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organic.  Garden Organic is the working name of the Henry Doubleday Research Association, based in Coventry UK - Current listing for carrots

Read about a visit to the Vavilov Institute here. (St Petersburg, Russia)

Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library (HSL) aims to conserve vegetable varieties that are not widely available. It is not a gene bank and all of the collection, once there is enough seed, will become available for members to grow and enjoy. The collection consists of mainly European varieties, including:

Rare landrace varieties, which are adapted to specific growing conditions.

Heirloom varieties that have been saved over many generations. These are unique to the Heritage Seed Library catalogue.

Varieties that have been dropped from popular seed catalogues over the past decade. This occurs for a number of reasons; their lack of popularity with customers, their unsuitability for commercial scale production or simply the prohibitive cost of trialling and National Listing. Visit the heritage Seed Library here.

A note about "modern" carrots - Heirloom/Heritage carrots show their ancient heritage because they do not have root shear. Root shear is a trait that has been bred into modern carrots that allows the side roots to break off on harvesting, only leaving little eye scars of the skin. This makes for an easy to harvest and process carrot.

Carrot - Afghan Purple

Catalogue Entry afghan purple carrot

Egyptian cave paintings dating back to around 2000BC show what some think are purple carrots, the orange varieties we are familiar with today were not developed until the 16th century. (no documentary evidence for this) Donated by P Carry of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange this purple carrot produces 20-25cm roots that do have some tendency to fork. When sliced the purple carrots reveal a bright yellow core, which is maintained when cooked, and have a more pronounced 'carroty' flavour than orange varieties. Shows some resistance to root fly attack.


Colour is retained in light cooking. Roots are 9” long, narrowly tapering from a ¾-1” crown. Best treated as a distinct vegetable, it has a wild carrot flavour, high in terpenoids and low in sugars. Not as sweet or crunchy as garden carrots, it is used as an accent vegetable, especially in salads, where the bi-coloured cross sections add a distinctive flavour and colour. Also great for country fairs. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

See also: Seed Savers Exchange. Garden seed inventory, 5th ed., p.159. 65 days. Bicoloured roots have yellow core surrounded by purple, 9” long, pleasant wild carrot flavour, texture is similar to celeriac or turnip root, not as sweet or as crunchy as garden carrots.

The carrot is to return to its roots and will go on sale this summer in its original colour – purple. Generations of people in the West have grown up believing that carrots are always orange. Carrots are said to have been recognised as one of the plants in the garden of the Babylonian King Marduk-apla-iddina, the Biblical Merodach-Baladan ll, who reigned at Babylon in 721–710 and 703 BC. There is no documentary evidence for this carrot reference. 

The clay tablet with cuneiform inscription is located in the British Museum. 67 plants are listed and appear in two columns, subdivided into groups, perhaps to represent plant beds. Only 26 plant names have been identified with certainty including leeks, onion garlic, lettuce, radish, cucumber, gherkin, cardamom, caraway, dill, thyme, oregano, fennel, coriander, cumin and fenugreek. Many remain to be identified. Carrot is currently not amongst those identified, though some of the above identified are umbellifers. The tablet also lists utensils and personnel in the garden. If the carrot was used it would probably have been placed amongst the aromatic herbs along with fennel, suggesting that the root was discounted, using only the pleasantly scented flowers and leaves in cooking.

In Roman times carrots were purple or white. By the 10th century purple carrots were grown in Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern Iran. Purple, white and yellow carrots were imported to southern Europe in the 14th century. Black, red and green carrots were also grown but carrots have been orange in the West since Dutch growers decided in the 16th century that the patriotic colour was preferable. Experts believe Dutch breeders used a yellow mutant seed from North Africa to develop the orange variety and then stuck to it through breeding. Their colour comes from beta-carotene with some alpha carotene, a pigment the body converts to vitamin A, which is essential for healthy skin and vision in dim light.

Carrot  - Beta III carrot beta lll

Catalogue Entry

A variety bred in the US for its high carotene content, which is three times the norm, hence the name. The dark orange-red roots are described perfectly by Seed Guardian J C Jones, who says, “A medium-sized taper-rooted carrot with no hard core, particularly delicious when eaten young and small. Also good for freezing.”


See also: Seed Savers Exchange. Garden seed inventory, 5th ed., p.161. High carotene content, exceptional taste

carrot egmont gold

Carrot - Egmont Gold

Catalogue Entry

Originally from Yates of Australia this tapering, pale orange, maincrop variety is good for late sowing. It was brought back from New Zealand by Rob Hole, gardener at the Bishop’s Palace, Wells, in 1998. Described in 1967 in the Pedigree Seeds Catalogue as "without doubt the most tender and fully flavoured main crop carrot offered”.

References - None

carrot ginat flak

Carrot - Giant Improved Flak (or Flakee)

Catalogue Entry

A large, long, pale orange carrot with a tapered shape and rounded shoulders showing no signs of greenback. Does not have a strong carroty flavour when either raw or cooked, but are crunchy and crisp.

Seed Guardian Jane Love suggests that they would be ideal for making coleslaw.

References None

carrot john's purple

Carrot - John's Purple

Catalogue Entry

John Purves, Oxford, originally collected this carrot in the mid-1970s and over many years managed to obtain a pure line of purple carrots from four he found amongst a bag given to him by a neighbour for his rabbits. He passed on some of his seeds to Horticulture Research International, now part of Warwick University, for their long-term preservation. With John's consent, some were released to us. John says, "Tastes like an orange carrot - crisp and flavoursome".


See also William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, page 125

Article on Violet or Purple Carrot - history, description, flavour, cultivation (likes wet, heavy soil), bolts easily but beautiful flowers.

carrot london market

Carrot - London Market

Catalogue Entry

Originally from Finland, this traditional early ‘short horn’ type carrot has very wide, stumpy roots which are deep orange-red in colour. Guardian Anne St John notes that they are good boiled or steamed, or freshly grated in salads and have a mild flavour. They freeze (un-blanched) and store well.

References - See: Arche Noah Sortenhandbuch 2002, p.44 (German text)

carrot manchester table

Carrot - Manchester Table

Catalogue Entry

This variety is still commercially available in both Australia and New Zealand, which is where our donor picked up his seeds. Productive and vigorous, it produces crunchy, deep orange, cylindrical roots up to 20cm long, with a lovely sweet flavour.

Commercial catalogues describe it as 'outstanding'.

References - Listed in PVSG Feb 1972 EEC Special Edition

carrot red elephnat

Carrot  - Red Elephant

Catalogue Entry

Donated by Warwick Horticulture Research International, now part of Warwick University. A fast growing, large and tasty 19th Century Australian heirloom deep orange-red carrot. It has no hard core and can be eaten at any stage from baby to full maturity. Described in Carters Blue Book of Gardening in 1934 as "A veritable giant, both in length and bulk, specimens have been exhibited measuring 30 inches long; prominent in the garden and the exhibition table." Heritage Seed Library member Gareth Close adds, "The best carrot ever! Superb flavour and trouble-free to grow."


19th Century Australian heirloom, discontinued as commercial variety in Australia in 1910

The largest garden carrot. A veritable giant, both in length and bulk; specimens have been exhibited measuring 30” long; prominent in the garden and on the exhibition table, 141 First Prizes reported by customers in one season. [Letter from a customer is then quoted]. Carter’s Blue book of gardening: catalogue 1934, p.278

See also: Seed Savers Exchange. Garden seed inventory, 5th ed., p.171. Red-orange skin, very large, flavourful

Grow out 2001 – Long tapered roots, dense bushy foliage, excellent internal quality, deep orange core, almost darker than or indistinguishable from outer flesh. Sue Stickland

This carrot does not have a hard core. It cooks well and retains its colour. It can be eaten at any stage between baby size and full maturity. I first grew this carrot 40 years ago, obtaining the seed from Carter’s. I regularly produced carrots of 12 to 16 oz. and tender throughout. J. C. Churchill, BA3 6SX

I found these carrots best when eaten young, but those stored for seed stored very well. When removed for replanting, they were still firm. If I had had enough stored for eating, they would have still been as good as the fresh ones. Not a dark carrot in colour, not a lot of core, good flavour and worth growing. P. Howlett, RH11 9AW

Listed in Carter’s Seeds for 1931/4/5.

Carrot  - Scarlet Horn

Catalogue Entry

This carrot originated in the historical town of Hoorn in Northern Holland around 1610. A good all round choice for early cropping, a short stump rooted variety with deep red skin and flesh. Skin is finely grained, the texture crisp and is well flavoured.


'Early French Scarlet Horn' and 'Early Scarlet Horn' listed in John Forbes Catalogue of Vegetable & Flower Seeds 1892, 1896

'Early Scarlet Horn' referred to in JC Loudon's The Horticulturist, London 1849

Root 6 inches in length, 2½ inches in diameter, nearly cylindrical and tapering abruptly to a very slender taproot. Skin orange-red but green or brown where it comes to the surface of the ground. Flesh deep orange yellow, fine grained and of superior flavour and delicacy. The crown of the root is hollow and the foliage short and small. As a table carrot, much esteemed, both on account of the smallness of its heart and the tenderness of its fibre. Fearing Burr: Field and garden vegetables of America. 1865

Early Scarlet Horn – Good all round choice for early cropping. Medium size, medium tapered roots. D. T. Brown’s web site

Early Scarlet Horn – Early Horn, or Early Scarlet Dutch Horn, Carotte Rouge Courte Hative. By 1610. From the Dutch town of Hoorn. “A stump rooted variety of very fine quality, bunches well and recommended for growing under cloches”. Thomas Etty Esq. web site

English Early Scarlet Horn = pointed root. Dutch Early Scarlet Horn = stump root. Many different types of Early Scarlet Horn. Seeds of Diversity web site.

Early Horn. Very old variety first introduced before 1610 in the Netherlands. Now quite rare. A short rooted variety noted as having deep red skin and flesh, fine grained, crisp and well flavoured. World Carrot Museum a to z of varieties

Coloured illustration half natural size of Earliest Scarlet French Horn (shaped like a small ball with a short tail, red in colour. Album Benary: alte Gemusesorten, 1876 [Facsimile, text in German], tab.IV, carrots, no.13

“Early Scarlet Horn” in Carter’s Seeds (1931/4/5); Bourne’s Seeds (1932); Legg’s Seeds (1931/4?); L.R. Russell Seeds (1937) “very sweet, good colour coming into use after the “French Horn” sorts”.

There are frequent references to carrots as “Scarlet” or “Horn”, though not specifically (“Early”)/ “Scarlet Horn”. It may be that the names have changed, though the carrot variety may be the same.

Carrot - Topweight

Catalogue Entry carrot topweight

About 80 years old, an English maincrop carrot now only available commercially outside Europe. It has a large, tapering root, reaching 25-30cm in length, with bright orange flesh. It produces a heavy yield and is said to withstand adverse weather conditions making it ideal for overwintering.


See also: Seed Savers Exchange. Garden seed inventory, 5th ed., p.173. 80 days. Large chunky bright orange carrot, 10-12” x 3” at shoulder, good grower in deep soils, keeps well in the soil, winter over type, yields under adverse conditions, fine quality

Best resistance to pests & carrot virus. Heavy yielding. Sow spring and summer. Good for pots and heavy soil. 2½ cm round carrots, can be sown twice as thickly as common varieties. The curator, Heritage Seed Curators Association, Australia 1997, p.40

90 days to maturity. Big carrots with good flavour, ideally 10 cm x 30 cm, but in my clay soil they grew to 5 cm x 20 cm. Need the whole summer to achieve maximum size. Seeds of Diversity Canada 2000, p.39

Carrot - White Belgium

Catalogue Entry carrot white belgium

Renowned as the best cultivated white carrot, originally introduced in the 1800s for stock feed but is delicious enough for table use. Reported by Alan and Jackie Gear to have a "well developed flavour that is mild and crisp, equal to any orange carrot". Produces pure white roots with green shoulders that show above ground. High yielding and carrot fly resistant. Good for those who cannot tolerate carotene. Mentioned by Vilmorin (1885) and listed in Sutton's catalogue of 1852.


White Belgian' listed in PVSG Feb 1972 EEC Special Edition

White Belgium 1600s

Although there is little or nothing by way of documentary evidence, the mild tasting White Belgium or Belgian White (known in France as Blanche) may well have come from Flanders, and has many similarities to an old variety known in 17th century Britain as Long White. White carrots were grown long before orange carrots burst on to the scene, and of the few white carrots that survive in cultivation, White Belgium is reckoned to have the best flavour. A good cropper, even on lower quality soils (though it abhors frost), it makes a novel addition to salad, soups or stews, and would be worth experimenting with for an albino version of a carrot cake. In France it is most esteemed as horse fodder! Christopher Stocks 2008 Forgotten Fruits A Guide to Britain's Traditional Fruit & Vegetables.

White Belgium, Green-Top White. Root very long, fusiform, frequently measuring 18-20” in length, and 4”-5” in diameter. In the genuine variety, the crown rises 5”-6” from the surface of the ground, and, the exception of a slight contraction towards the top, the full diameter is retained for nearly ½ the entire length. Skin green above, white below ground. Flesh white, tending to citron yellow at the centre or heart of the root; somewhat coarse in texture. Foliage rather large and vigorous. Remarkable for its productiveness, surpassing in this respect all other varieties, and exceeding that of the Long Orange by nearly ¼. It can be harvested with great facility, and gives a good return even on poor soils. The variety is not considered of any value as a table esculent, and is grown almost exclusively for feeding stock; for which purpose it is, however, esteemed less valuable than the yellow fleshed sorts, because less nutritious and more liable to decay during winter. Since its introduction it has somewhat deteriorated; and as now grown differs to some extent from the description given above. The roots are smaller, seldom rise more than 2”-3” above the soil, and taper directly from the crown to the point. A judicious selection of roots for seed, continued for a few seasons, would undoubtedly restore the variety to its primitive form and dimensions. Fearing Burr: Field and garden vegetables of America, 1865, p.28

Root sunk in the ground for 2/3rds or ¾ of its length, green or bronze purple on the part over ground; flesh of the root white, with a marked tendency towards a more or less decided yellow tinge. It yields a heavy crop, and in this respect rivals the beetroot. This variety appears to have sprung from the old Long White Carrot, but has now almost entirely gone out of cultivation. Numerous attempts have been made to render it more hardy, so as to have the crop come in at the latter end of autumn without running the risk of having it injured by frost. These attempts have not been successful. The leaves of the plant will bear 4 or 5 degrees of frost, but this is sufficient to produce a change in the tissue of the roots, even in the over ground part, which has been inured to variations of temperature. The underground portion of the root is very sensitive to cold, and becomes disorganized by the slightest frost. It is therefore necessary, when these carrots happen to be pulled in frosty weather, to protect them at once, by covering them with straw or earth, or with their own leaves cut and heaped over them. Illustration, 1/5th natural size. Vilmorin-Andrieux: The vegetable garden, p.168

Coloured illustration, half natural size. Album Benary: alte Gemusesorten, 1876 [Facsimile, text in German], tab.IV, Carrots, no.6

Listed in Sutton’s catalogue 1852. Taxonomy boxes: Historical variety lists. Thomas Etty: The roots of vegetables

Blanche. An old Belgian, white-rooted variety. 2 colour photographs. Roger Phillips: Vegetables, p.122-123

See also William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, pages 126-127 History, cultivation, culinary hints, colour plate no.29

White Belgium, 1600s. Although there is little or nothing by way of documentary evidence, the mild-tasting White Belgium or Belgian White (known in France as Blanche) may well have come from Flanders, and has many similarities to an old variety known in seventeenth-century Britain as the Long White. White carrots were grown long before orange carrots burst on to the scene, and of the few white carrots to survive in cultivation, White Belgium is reckoned to have the best flavour. A good cropper, even on lower quality soils (though it abhors frost), it makes a novel addition to salads, soups or stews, and would be worth experimenting with for an albino version of carrot cake. In France it is most esteemed as horse fodder. Christopher Stocks: Forgotten fruits: a guide to Britain’s traditional fruit and vegetables. Random House, 2008

100-120 days to maturity. These tend to be long thick roots that do well if they can be over wintered. They taste better in the spring. A friend pickles them with great success. Flowers prolifically the second year, even from 2” stumps. Seeds of Diversity Canada 2000, p.39

Referred to in Johnson's Gardeners' Dictionary (1894 edition)

Listed in John Forbes Catalogue of Vegetable and Flower Seeds 1892, 1896 (as agricultural variety)

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