Orange carrots … it’s the law?

Here’s an interesting tit-bit for you this winter. I was given dinner the other day and it was mentioned that one of the carrots was purple on the outside. “That’s not odd” said I, “carrots were originally purple, the orange kind where developed…” for what I thought were reasons of ascetics. The disbelief though not strong meant I should prove it by getting good old google out. Lo and behold I found out they were also white in the beginning, I mused they were changed in colour then incase someone ended up with extra parsnips and war broke out. So for your pleasure here is the said story of how the carrot became orange and ginger people the world over got a nickname they oughtn’t have had.

Most people know that the carrot’s vivid pigment comes from beta-Carotene, an organic compound found in pumpkins and sweet potatoes as well as carrots. But that’s not why virtually all carrots sold in grocery stores and farmer’s markets are orange. Carrots can naturally grow in a range of colors, including purple, yellow and white. So why do we never, ever see those colours at the supermarket? Carrots are orange because oranges are orange.

Almost all citrus fruit is derived from a common ancestor that first evolved in southern China about 20 million years ago, by the year zero, oranges in particular were known in India where they were known by the sanskrit word naranga. The prefix ‘nar’ I believe means aroma, and it should be known that back then oranges weren’t eaten as food. They were just used for their aromatic properties. The orange traveled west and was called the narang in Persia. When the fruit arrived in France, it may have been pronounced un naranj, which doesn’t sound very different than un aranj. Linguists actually believe the “n” from the front of the word was lost due to confusion with the preceding indefinite article, at which point the French presumably misassociated that first syllable with their word for gold, or, leading to the modern orange. 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.’ The fruit is responsible for naming the colour, but we’re still not to the reason virtually all carrots are orange. Things just get more mixed up from here. 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.

When a man named William the Silent from Nassau inherited the rule in Orange in 1544, he became William of Orange. 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. Back then the Dutch were known as carrot farmers. You could get their carrots in white or yellow or purple. Then in the 17th century a breed of carrot was developed that had a lot of beta-Carotene and was orange. And the Dutch started growing this in great abundance in tribute to William of Orange to such a degree that almost all other forms of carrot had gone out of mass agricultural production…in this very roundabout way our carrots are orange because our oranges are orange, and they’ve been that way for political reasons. Basically it’s the law.