Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why are carrots orange?”

Rainbow of carrots via Next Nature.

Lately, The Eight-Year-Old and I have been noticing purple carrots popping up all over Chicago. The latest example was just over the weekend, when Daddyo took us to the Grand Lux Cafe in downtown Chicago for dinner.

I ordered the pork chops (yum!) with a side of roasted carrots. The carrots ended up being a mix of white, purple, and orange. The Eight-Year-Old knew from previous dining experiences at Sweet Tomatoes that purple carrots are possible, even without the magic of food coloring. But seeing the white, purple, and orange medley on my plate reminded her mind of an old question.

“Why are carrots orange?”

The scientific answer is that orange carrots have more beta-carotene in them. Beta-carotene is a yellow/orange pigment that helps create the rich colors of many fruits and vegetables like apricots, peppers, carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A, a mineral that our bodies use to keep our skin, immune system, and eyes healthy.

The more interesting historical answer involves a fruit, the Eighty Years’ War, and a small town in Southern France.

Carrots are orange because oranges are orange

Before the 17th century, most carrots were purple, white, or yellow. You can read the full story here, but the short version is that today’s citrus fruit is descended from a citrus tree that first appeared in China about 20 million years ago. Over time, the fruit tree migrated to India, where it was valued for and named naranga after its rich aroma.

Eventually the naranga traveled west to Persia, where its name was shortened to narang. When the fruit arrived in France, its name evolved again, from un naranj, to un aranj, which ultimately became the very familiar orange.

(In fact, linguists think that the color orange was named for the fruit, not the other way around. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer writes of a person who has a complexion “between a red and a yellow.” Presumably, he would have used the word orange, if it had been available to him.)

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Gnikrj via Creative Commons)

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Gnikrj via Creative Commons)

Carrots are orange because a famous guy came from a town named Orange

In 35 BC, the Romans founded a town in Southern France which they named Arausio. Traditionally, the town’s name was pronounced “Aurenja.” Perhaps not too surprisingly, the pronunciation of the town’s name became conflated with the French orange, so that by the time William the Silent became prince of the town in 1544, he was known as William of Orange.

William of Orange matters in our story, because he led the Dutch in their revolt against Spain in 1568. The Dutch War of Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War, was ultimately successful, and led to the formation of the Dutch Republic in 1648.

Carrots are orange because the Dutch were carrot farmers

You can imagine that by the time they gained their independence, the Dutch were rather fond of William of Orange.  Before the Eighty Years’ War, the Dutch were renowned for their purple, white, and yellow carrots. But as the war dragged on, the Dutch developed a breed of orange carrots as a means of paying tribute to William of Orange. This new orange carrot was grown so widely that it crowded out the less fashionable purple, white, and yellow carrots.

Once the orange carrot was firmly entrenched in mass agricultural production it stayed there. Purple and white carrots had no chance. And that’s why it’s much easier to find orange carrots in the store than purple ones today. Your best chance of finding purple carrots is still to grow them yourself.

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