Carrots Are Orange For Purely Political Reasons. Here’s How We Lost The Rest of the Rainbow.

carrots

Over the last several years, you may have noticed a rainbow of carrot colors showing up on grocery store shelves. While these brightly-colored carrots may seem like the product of modern agriculture, they are actually centuries old. 

In fact, heirloom varieties of the vegetable are far older than the orange carrots we have become accustomed to. Initially, carrot colors varied greatly, from white to yellow to purple. 

What Happened to the Carrot Colors?

The story of how we reached orange carrot dominance is rife with political drama, national pride, and a little bit of hyperbole. The oft-told story is that in the 17th century, Dutch growers began cultivating orange carrots to honor William of Orange. 

In the 16th century, the Dutch lowlands were a Spanish colony. Monarchs in Madrid ruled them as the Spanish Netherlands. Prince William of Orange (an area that is now the south of France) was one of the main leaders of the Dutch struggle for independence. The Dutch Revolt began in 1566, which led them to finally become the independent Dutch Republic more than eighty years later.

Prince William was assassinated before Independence became official, but the Dutch largely regard him as the country’s founding father. When the Dutch moved from being a republic to having a monarchy, Prince William’s descendants were the ones to occupy the throne. 

The story goes that Dutch farmers began to develop and cultivate orange varieties of carrots to honor the House of Orange. From there, the orange carrots gained popularity and began spreading around the world [1].

The first written descriptions of the Long Orange Dutch Carrot are from 1721. These carrots eventually led to the orange Horn carrot that we are familiar with today. The Horn carrot comes from the Dutch town of Hoorn, where it supposedly originates from [2].

This is the story you will most often hear to explain why all other carrot colors nearly disappeared. But is it really true?

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The Myth of the Lost Carrot Colors

According to John Stolarczyk, curator of the World Carrot Museum, this story is false.

“Though the development and stabilization of the orange carrot root does appear to date from around that period in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that honoring William of Orange had anything to do with it,” he said. “There is no documentary evidence that the Dutch invented orange carrots to honor their royal family.” [1]

In a 2011 report that Stolarczyk co-authored, he explained the evolution of carrots. According to the report, wild carrots were originally white or pale yellow. When people began cultivating them five thousand years ago, however, they changed to purple and yellow.

Later on, there became two distinct classes of carrots: Asiatic carrots around the Himalayas, and Western carrots in the Middle East and Turkey. The report suggests that carrots in the Western group likely started off as yellow, but farmers gradually began selectively planting carrots with brighter orange colors [3].

Eventually, traders introduced carrots to Europe, and there are documents from Spain that show people cultivating orange and purple carrots in the fourteenth century. That was long before William of Orange began his political work in the Netherlands.

By the sixteenth century, the Netherlands had become one of the main agricultural forces in Europe. This made them capable of propagating orange carrots in large quantities. According to Stolarczyk, the weather conditions in the Netherlands were better for growing orange carrots. This made them rise to dominance over other carrot colors. 

He said that Dutch merchants began selling them across the continent. When other countries like France, Spain, and Germany decided they liked them orange carrots became the norm. This effectively erased all other carrot colors from the market [1].

The Orange Dynasty

So how did orange carrots come to be connected with William the Orange? 

Prince William and his sons became incredibly successful military and political leaders. William’s son Frederick and his wife Amalia had exclusive access to luxury goods through the Dutch trading companies. Like many prominent figures throughout history, they enjoyed showing off their riches.

The name Orange, and subsequently the color, became a key tool in the Dynasty’s public relations. Each of Frederick’s four daughters built their own palaces and named them after their family. They painted the buildings orange and planted orange trees in their gardens.

Eating orange carrots eventually became a way for the public to show support for the family. The sale of carrots and the political standing of the Orange family were became intertwined. In fact, there were times when authorities banned the vegetable from Dutch markets when the family’s political standing faltered [4].

Carrot Colors are Back

As more people become interested in heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, different carrot colors are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. You likely won’t be seeing anyone using these carrots as a political weapon, however. With that aside, they can add a pop of color to your next salad.

Keep Reading: The Carrot Gardening Hack for the Best Harvest Every Time

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