• By Janine Pineo •
It lurks underground, shrouded in dirt and mystery.
Growing out of sight, it easily is forgotten until the frosts of fall kill all else.
Its roots reach through the millennia to Afghanistan, then to Turkey, Holland, France.
But give it a good yank and all is revealed.
Behold Daucus carota, a biennial herb that began its life in shades of purple, red and white before a yellow strain came along and then breeding turned the standard hue to orange.
As in carrot orange.
Don’t get me wrong, I like orange. I’ve grown orange tomatoes, orange peppers and orange squash. In fact, I’d be interested in, say, an orange potato or even an orange bean.
But just this year I grew the same plants in a spectrum of colors: red, blue, pink, purple, green, yellow and Black Krim, a tomato that pretty much defies color definition, although the phrase putrid-looking would work if putrid were a color. Tastes great, though.
So the patriotic carrot of yesteryear – if you want to count purple as blue and we all know that “gardening experts” say blue when they really mean purple – would be a unique addition to the garden if those Dutch and French folks hadn’t bred the diversity away four centuries ago.
Well, they didn’t completely.
Last Sunday in a light drizzle, with a pattering of droplets rattling the leaves carpeting the woods floor, I pulled a rainbow of carrots out of a raised bed and marveled at the wonder of harvesting vegetables on Nov. 21.
Then I marveled at the colors. We won’t even start on the shapes. Yet.
Nestled in my cold, dirty hands were orange carrots, of course. But right there with those were two of a different shade: a gloriously rich purple and a sublime yellow.
If I had any imagination, I might have envisioned myself discovering the first purple carrots in a tumble of weedy plants in the foothills of some forlorn Afghan mountain range tens of centuries ago, but in my Bean boots and Polartec fleece vest with a shiny new colander at my elbow, I doubted I could keep up the charade for long. When I looked at the yellow, I could have been one of the Turks who came across that particular variety in the 10th century. Possibly a nice fantasy, but I am sure there was some kind of dreadful reason that caused people to be digging about in the dirt foraging for food. Ditto for the Afghans.
It is kind of like lobster: What kind of nut looking at it decided it was good eating?
Anyway, there I was, cold, dirty and drizzly, comparing apples to oranges (or lobsters to carrots), thankful that we had had a rain-filled summer that brought these carrots to such a lush and brilliant display, even if none of it was visible without the aforementioned “good yank.”
To the right of the bed was Adelaide, a Dutch hybrid offered by Pinetree Garden Seeds of New Gloucester, which says this variety is the kind used “exclusively” for producing the baby carrots widely available in the grocery store. It’s a lot cheaper to grow your own at 95 cents a packet.
To the left of Adelaide was Purple Dragon, the purple carrot with not a hint of the secret that lies within. Bite into one of these and surprise! It’s a standard orange; just the skin is purple.
One has to wonder if the name signifies the orange flames a dragon spews – if the dragon happens to be purple.
Purple Dragon hails from Bountiful Gardens of Willits, Calif., along with the yellow carrot that grew splendidly alongside it. Amarillo Yellow is a tapered carrot that is a lemony yellow straight through. The name I don’t get because I don’t know if Amarillo is yellow, but that is a mystery for another day.
The left side of the bed held two productive rows of Oxheart, an orange French variety dating from the late 1800s available from Seeds of Change of Santa Fe, N.M. The catalog describes it as an excellent keeper. Its shape is distinctive, almost an exaggerated carrot form with a broad shoulder and, in my garden, somewhat squat. I am not sure what conditions would be needed to produce 1-pound roots, but the catalog lists that as a claim to fame.
As to the flavors, each variety was unique, although Adelaide seemed the sweetest and Amarillo Yellow was not as carroty as a regular carrot. Eaten fresh or cooked together, they blended well.
If the ground doesn’t freeze, I may be harvesting into December before ending this year’s garden season. For then, and only then, can I speak the immortal words of that wascally cawot-toting wabbit: “That’s all, folks.”
First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 2004.