Farmgirl Confidential: Heirloom or Hybrid?

By | May 13, 2013
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rainbow colored carrots

Heirloom or Hybrid? What’s New is Old for the Carrot

While searching through seed catalogs, looking for a new variety of carrot to grow this year, I discovered something quite interesting.

I became fascinated with all the new carrot colors popping up—yellow, white, red and even black! But I noticed that almost all of them were F1 hybrids, and I’m a die-hard heirloomist, demanding open-pollinated, genetically diverse, historical vegetables. F1 hybrids would certainly contradict my code of ethics and deceive my market customers who expect heirlooms from me. (About hybrids: Before 1960, breeding methods for carrots were based on mass selection in open-pollinated populations, but hybrids with greater uniformity are now increasingly replacing the older cultivars. Some of the main breeding objectives are improvements in total yield but also—particularly in F1 hybrids—growth rate, earliness, uniformity, taste, color, texture, carotene content and bolting. Well, everything that a carrot is.)

I searched through the typical orange carrot varieties and discovered that many of them were also hybrids (most carrots at the grocery store are also hybrids) and that only a very few were described as heirloom varieties but only dating back to the mid 1800s. So I got out my old book Gardening for Profit (Peter Henderson, 1914) and sure enough, the old carrot varieties listed were very limited. I discovered also that the orange carrot, which we consider the normal carrot, is actually a recent addition in the overall scheme of human agriculture to the domesticated, edible carrot family.

Generations of people in the West have grown up believing that carrots are always orange, but long before the orange carrot became established around the 16th century, carrots were purple, almost black!

These types of “black” carrot are still under cultivation in Asia, but are being rapidly replaced by orange-rooted Western varieties, although purple carrots are making a comeback.

Black carrots existed across Asia and the eastern Mediterranean where it is believed that carrots originated about 5000 years ago, in present-day Afghanistan. From there nature then took a hand and produced mutants and natural hybrids, crossing both with cultivated and wild varieties. It is believed that purple carrots were then taken westwards, where yellow mutants and wild forms crossed to produce orange. Finally, some Dutch growers took these mutant orange carrots under their horticultural wings and developed them to be a sweeter, more refined vegetable. Over thousands of years of both natural and human hybridization the carrot moved from being a small, tough, bitter and spindly root to a fleshy, sweet, unbranched edible root. Today carrots are divided into two distinct groups from which the modern orange carrot derives: the Western carrot and the Eastern carrot.

So all these “new colors” showing up in seed catalogs aren’t so new after all, and without hybrids we probably wouldn’t be eating carrots but rather using them as the medicinal decoctions they were originally used as in ancient times. Maybe hybrids aren’t such a bad thing.

Now totally intrigued, I went back to the catalogs to decide which carrots I wanted to grow. One of the major concerns of carrot breeders is to create a more nutritional carrot, in particular a carrot higher in beta carotene. I discovered that different colors in carrots herald totally different chemicals that you can take advantage of.

Osborne Seed Company of Mount Vernon, Washington, breaks it down like this: “Yellow carrots have xanthophylls, which are good for eye health. Purple carrots have anthocyanins, which are antioxidants; orange carrots have the highest beta carotene, which our bodies use to create Vitamin A; and red carrots have lycopene, which is good for preventing heart disease and some cancers.” In their Variety Trails blog, the company also remarks that with the current interest in “good food” these days, “many plant breeders are taking taste and texture into consideration, even making it a priority.”

Lately there have been some fantastic varieties released that balance flavor, texture, appearance, uniformity and resiliency. Osborne Seed carries a new F1 line of colored carrots by the breeders of “Sugarsnax” a very popular fresh-eating orange carrot. These carrots are slower bolting and much more refined in taste and texture. One of the great benefits of their new colored seed mix is that all the seeds have similar growth rates in a broad color range. Usually, you have to be careful when you buy seed variety mixes because the different colored carrots often mature at totally different times defeating the whole purpose of the mix.

Unfortunately not all colored carrots are created equal in the taste department, and most varieties should be chosen according to their ultimate use. Some are exceptional raw, while others are best cooked. My family and I conducted a taste test on as many varieties as I could find. First we sliced them all very thinly to be eaten raw. Of course the deep orange was delicious and just what we expected. The yellow was good; sweet with more than acceptable texture. The purple-black was a bit tough, even sliced thinly, with less of a carrot flavor, but not at all bitter. The white carrot was the winner by far in the raw department. It had an unconventional, apple-crisp texture and the sweetest flavor.

Now in the cooked department it was another story. The purple-black carrot had great texture cooked and a slightly sweet flavor, although its purple color bled into the water (in Afghanistan and Turkey carrots were used for dyes). I have read that the black carrots with their antioxidant properties are great for juicing. It is said that there are up to 28 times more anthocyanins (the antioxidant that creates the purple-red pigment in blueberries and raspberries) in purple carrots than there are in orange ones.

On the other hand, the white carrots lost their distinctive texture when cooked, but the sweetness still prevailed. The yellow carrots were defiantly better cooked, as were the purple-black, and the orange were as good as always.

Breeders are working at improving these colored carrots in taste and texture while highlighting their exceptional nutritional values. When choosing which variety to grow you should research well their individual cultivation. Some of these colorful carrots have a predisposition to early bolting like their wild cousins and need to be planted a little later in the season when the soil has warmed up. Some even need later planting after the longest days of the summer have passed to prevent this bolting.

Rich, sandy, peaty soils are perfect for providing the best conditions for the carrot roots to penetrate deeply and to swell.

The pH value should 6.5 to 7.5 for best results. Potassium promotes solid, sweet carrots, and wood ashes contain soluble potassium, which reaches the plant quickly. Excess nitrogen causes branching and hairy, fibrous roots.

Research and development continues with the goal to produce disease-resistant varieties, together with research into other uses for the root, such a biofuel and its use in construction as an alternative to fiberglass.

Veronica Worthington is an organic farmer who grows heirloom vegetables for market and breeds heritage sheep for wool in West Dennis. 

Article from Edible Cape Cod at
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