Carrots have got quite a bit going for them. They are relatively easy to grow; they will thrive in a number of different types of climates; they are very healthy to eat; and they are one of the longest lasting vegetables out there. There are also a number of misconceptions about carrots that many people believe. Two of the most popular – that eating them will improve most people’s night vision, and that they are all rabbits eat – are untrue.
Most experts believe that carrots date back about 5,000 years to Ancient Persia (now part of Iran and Afghanistan), and in ancient times were cultivated more for their pleasant smelling leaves and seeds than for the root vegetable people love today. Probably introduced into Europe through trade around the 4th century BC (at which point they were most likely purple or yellow in color), carrots have been cultivated and cross-bred for centuries to make them more tender and better tasting.
Botanically, carrots are the edible taproot of the Daucus carota species in the Apiaceae family of flowering plants and are closely related to parsley and parsnips, as well as to Queen Anne’s Lace. Mostly cultivated for the edible taproot, the greens of the plant are usually also edible (and what rabbits really like). Carrots are an excellent source of dietary fiber, as well as alpha and beta carotene (which accounts for the orange color of Western carrots), vitamins A, B3, B6, C and K, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus.
Today, about 30 million metric tons of carrots are commercially cultivated each year, with China, the EU, Russia, and the United States leading the world in production. Carrots are also one of the most popular homegrown vegetables and are very popular with gardeners throughout the world. In farming, carrots are often planted alongside a ‘companion plant’ such as coriander or marigolds, which will attract pests common to the carrot plant. In home gardening they are often used as a companion plant themselves.
Carrot types are usually identified by the color, size, and shape of the root vegetable produced. There are two very broad general classifications when it comes to carrots: Eastern and Western. Both of these types have hundreds of cultivars, and the number is continually increasing as growers never stop trying to develop better carrots.
Generally speaking, if you live in North America or the EU, Western carrots are what you will most often find fresh at your local grocery store or farmer’s market, or see processed for other uses (canning, juices, frozen foods, baby food, etc).
So, what are the most popular types of carrots out there today?
Western carrots are the carrots with which you are probably the most familiar. They are the most popular and widely cultivated carrots throughout the world today. The original Western carrot was probably developed in Holland in the mid-17th century and has continued to be improved upon ever since. Western carrots are usually some shade of orange (although there are a few purple and white specialty varieties) and will vary in size, length and taste depending on the variety. There are hundreds of cultivars of Western carrots divided into four broad general types.
Even though they are the newest member of the Western carrot family, Imperators are the carrots that you will most often find in the produce section of your grocery store and at the farmer’s market. They are the most widely cultivated carrots for the ‘fresh’ market in North America.
The Imperator was developed by the now-defunct Associated Seed Growers, Inc. in the United States, and first introduced to the marketplace in the late 1920s. The first Imperator was the product of directed cross-breeding between the older Nantes and Chantenay cultivars (both discussed below) in an eventually successful attempt to develop a more stable, disease resistant, and durable carrot that would appeal to the world market.
Generally speaking, Imperator carrots will grow to between 6 and 7 inches in length (although some cultivars will reach 9 inches and over). About an inch in diameter at the top, the carrot tapers down to a pointy tip. Imperator carrots will usually have a pale, light orange color that is continued through the flesh. Although edible, the skin can be quite bitter and will usually be peeled off before consumption. The greens are also edible and are sometimes used in fresh garden salads.
Imperator carrots have a relatively coarse texture and an earthy flavor that is not as sweet as some other carrot types even though they have a fairly high natural sugar content (although they will taste sweeter when cooked). Imperators are often eaten fresh as snacks, sliced or shredded and added to salads or crudités, and cooked or steamed and served as a side dish or included in a cooked vegetable medley.
Imperator carrots will usually reach maturity in between 75 and 80 days. They are one of the most durable and long lasting of all the carrot varieties, and will often remain good raw for between 2 and 3 months, depending on how they are stored. Popular types of Imperator carrots include the Imperator 58, Blaze, Crusader, Eagle, Heritage, Nelson, Sunrise, and Prospector.
Chantenay carrots trace their roots (so to speak) to the Chantenay region of north-western France, from which they take their name. Developed by French growers during the mid-19th century, they first appeared in the marketplace in the 1880s and quickly became popular with growers throughout Europe and the United States. The most popular carrots in both Europe and North America through the Second World War, they have lost some ground to their offspring the Imperator over the last 50 years in the fresh produce market, but remain a very popular and widely cultivated carrot worldwide.
Most Chantenay carrot varieties are relatively short and stubby. They will usually grow to between 4 and 5 inches in length and can measure up to 3 inches at the top, tapering down to a fairly blunt tip. Both the skin and flesh will usually have a bright orange color while the edible greens will often resemble a fern. The skin is edible and quite thin and will not usually have to be removed, while the flesh is very crisp and quite sweet.
Chantenay carrots will usually reach maturity in between 60 and 70 days, although they are most often harvested just prior to becoming fully mature, as this is when they are at their sweetest. They are widely used in industrial food applications including canning, frozen foods, baby food, and juicing.
Fresh Chantenay carrots are excellent for snacking (due in part to the fact that they don’t need to be peeled), and are used in salads and vegetable medleys. They are also often used in heavier soups to add extra sweetness, and as a stand-alone vegetable to complement savory dishes.
Sturdy, quite adaptable, and requiring little maintenance Chantenay carrot varieties are among the most popular types of carrots with home gardeners in the Western world. Widely grown varieties include the Hercules, Red-Core, Carson, Royal, Oxheart, and Caracas.
The oldest of the still widely cultivated Western carrot varieties – and the most closely related to the first orange carrots produced in the 17th century in Holland – the Nantes carrot was developed in the late 1840s by French horticulturalist Henry Vimorin and named after the city of Nantes in Brittany, France. Still mostly cultivated in Europe, in recent years the Nantes has seen a marked increase in popularity in the United States, particularly among home growers.
Most varieties of Nantes carrots will normally grow to between 5 and 6 inches long (although some varieties – confusingly called half-longs – can reach up to 8 inches when fully mature) and about an inch and a half at the top. They do not narrow as greatly as some carrots as they approach the blunt tip, giving them a cylindrical appearance.
Nantes will usually have a very bright orange thin skin, a slightly darker orange flesh that is quite crisp and very sweet, and less of a ‘core’ than other Western cultivars. They are often consumed fresh with the peel and are highly valued by chefs for their sweetness, which tends to increase when they are cooked.
Nantes carrots are relatively easy to grow, can tolerate colder climates, and do well in rocky soil. Unfortunately, many varieties are particularly susceptible to pests and diseases, tend to be quite brittle and bruise easily. Due to their high natural sugar content, they do not store as well as many other carrots. Popular varieties of Nantes carrots include the Scarlett (which is actually still orange), Nelson, Sweetness, Touchon, Yaya, Napa, White Satin and Bolero.
Referred to as the ‘All American Carrot” prior to the dawn of the 20th century, the Danvers carrot was developed in the town of Danvers, Massachusetts after the US Civil War, and introduced to the market in 1871. Still commercially cultivated by growers in the United States, the Danvers carrot has been a favorite with home growers since their seeds were first marketed to the public by W. Atlee Burpee & Co (better known today as Burpee Seeds) in 1886.
Varieties of Danvers carrots will range from a dark to a very bright orange skin color that will usually carry through to the flesh. Growing to between 6 and 7 inches long with a top measuring around 2 inches that tapers down to a point, these carrots have a fairly coarse texture and a mild sweet taste.
Danvers carrots are often eaten fresh, though they will usually need to be peeled as the skin can be tough and somewhat bitter. They are widely used in canning and juicing, and stand up to steaming particularly well. They grow well in colder climates although can become tough if harvested late.
Popular varieties of Danvers carrots include the Danvers Half-Long, Danvers 126 and Yellowstone.
Not actually a ‘type’ of carrot, Baby carrots are probably the most widely consumed carrots in the United States today. Very popular as a ‘healthy’ snack food with adults and children alike, by some estimates Baby carrots currently account for over 50% of all carrot sales in the United States and Canada. And in most cases, they aren’t ‘babies’ at all.
While some select cultivars of very sweet carrots (most often Imperator or Chantenay varieties) are harvested early and sold on a very limited basis as Baby carrots, the vast majority of what you will find in the refrigerated or canned section of the grocery store labeled ‘baby carrots’ are actually the product of full-size carrots that have been cut down and formed to a uniform size and shape by machines.
The first Baby carrots appeared on the food scene in the mid-1980s and were created by a California carrot farmer named Mike Yurosek who was searching for some way to sell slightly damaged or irregularly formed parts of his crop. Thanks to aggressive marketing and supply-chain management throughout the 1990s, Baby (referred to in the industry as baby-cut) carrots took the country by storm, and are today one of the most popular ‘natural’ manmade snacks food in the world.
Round carrots originated in France in the mid-19th century, and will usually be members of either the Chantenay or Nantes varieties. Specifically cultivated to be a fast-growing carrot that would thrive in poor or particularly rocky soil, they are (as the name indicates) usually round, orange, and between 1.5 and 2 inches in diameter. They can be used like any other carrot, and are quite popular as snacks.
Also sometimes referred to as Asian, Eastern carrots are mostly cultivated (not surprisingly) in parts of Asia, Russia, and the Middle East – although in recent years some varieties have been catching on in Western Europe and the United States. As opposed to the most standard orange of the Western varieties, Eastern carrots come in a range of different colors and are more closely related to the original wild carrots first grown in Ancient Persia. Most Eastern carrot varieties are not usually commercially cultivated in the Western world, although many are very popular with North American home growers. It should be noted that some cultivars of Western carrots (most notably the Nantes) have been crossbred with Eastern carrots to produce different colored ‘specialty’ Western varieties.
Purple carrots are the most closely related to the original wild carrot, and were probably the first type to be domesticated and grown by man. Today they are widely cultivated in Russia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Most varieties will grow to between 6 and 7 inches long and be about an inch and a half in diameter at the top, tapering down to a point at the bottom. The thin skin will usually be a medium to dark shade of purple while the flesh of the carrot will be a light orange to dark yellow. The flesh is firm and crisp, and the flavor is slightly sweet and quite earthy. Often eaten raw or used in soups and stews, Purple carrots have a fairly short shelf life and will usually need to be used within two weeks of picking. In recent years, some Western processed food companies have been experimenting with purple carrots as a natural food coloring source.
The Yellow carrot is a native of Central Asia, where it was first domesticated in the 9th century. Normally both the skin and flesh are butter-yellow in color. They will grow to between 7 and 9 inches when fully mature and have a 2-inch diameter at the top which tapers to a very thin point at the bottom. Yellow carrots have a firm, crisp texture and a very sweet flavor. In many cases, they are harvested a week or two prior to full maturity, which is when they are the sweetest. Often consumed raw by themselves or as part of a salad, yellow carrots are also often pickled and used in a variety cooking applications, particularly in soups, sauces and stir fry dishes. Yellow carrots are fairly sturdy, store well, and are particularly well adapted to warmer climates.
Red Carrots probably originated in India and found their way to Japan in the mid-16th century, where they are still widely cultivated today – along with India and China. In recent years they have also become increasingly popular in Western Europe and the United States. Often growing to a foot in length, they will usually be around an inch and a half in diameter at the top and taper to a point at the bottom. The skin is a deep red that carries through to the flesh, which is softer than many other carrots and quite sweet. Red carrots are often eaten raw with the skin, used to add color to salads and crudités, and used in soups and stir fry dishes. The greens are also quite tasty and aromatic, and are often added to salads or used as garnish. Red carrots – and particularly the Kyoto Ninjin variety – are often a component of Osechi Ryori, a traditional Japanese New Year’s dish.
Probably native to the Middle East, the White carrot was first domesticated in the Mediterranean Region in the mid 700s AD and made its way across Europe over the centuries until it eventually found its way to Holland and became one of the progenitors of the Western orange carrot. White carrots are still cultivated throughout Europe, as well as China and the Middle East. Normally fairly thick and stubby, White carrots will grow between 5 and 7 inches in length, and be up to two inches in diameter at the top. The skin and flesh are both usually ivory white, and the flesh is quite sweet and almost coreless. Used in both raw and cooked applications in parts of Europe and Asia, some White carrot varieties are picked before they fully mature, when they are the most flavorful. In the decades directly following the development of the tastier orange carrot, White carrots were predominantly used as animal fodder.
Very closely related to (and probably almost as old as) the Purple varieties, Black carrots are currently mostly cultivated in China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. While the skin is either black or very dark purple, the flesh is usually a dark yellow or yellowish purple, crunchy and firm, and has a fairly spicy, not particularly sweet flavor. Used in both raw and cooked applications, Black carrots do not store well, and will typically need to be used in about a week. They are often juiced, canned or frozen. Black carrots have been used for centuries in some traditional medicines to reduce inflammation, ease constipation and other digestive issues, and reduce coughing. Some recent research indicates that consuming Black carrots could play a role in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.