Wild carrots probably evolved with the other flowering plants, about 360 million years ago in the Cretaceous period. Like apples, carrots are native to Central Asia, where there are many kinds of wild carrot. That’s why horses, which come from Central Asia, like both apples and carrots so much.
Wild carrots are related to many other Central Asian plants that people eat, like parsnips, celery, parsley, cumin, fennel, anise, coriander (cilantro), caraway, and dill. People sometimes eat the leaves or stalks of these plants, and sometimes the seeds, and sometimes the roots – they’re all edible.
In wild carrots, the roots are white, and skinny, so you’d have to pick a lot of wild carrots (also called Queen Anne’s Lace) to get enough to eat. Indo-Europeans probably brought wild carrots with them all over Europe and Asia, maybe because their horses liked them. There were carrots in Germany by around 2000 BC. Doctors all over Europe and Asia used carrot seeds and roots as medicine, on the theory that foods that taste bad must be good for you.
Over the years, Central Asian farmers bred carrots to get them to have bigger and sweeter roots. Still, throughout the time of the Persian Empire and the Parthian Empire, the Sogdians and the Uighurs, most people grew carrots mainly for their greens and seeds. There were occasional mutant colored carrots, like the one in this Late Roman plant encyclopedia, but most carrots were white.
Then around 800 AD, food scientists in Central Asia, at the center of the Silk Road, managed to breed a novelty kind of carrot – a purple carrot – that attracted more interest from international traders. Traders carried purple carrots south to India and west to Baghdad, then to Spain, and then to the rest of Europe by 1000 AD. People did more experimenting. By the 1000s people were breeding red and yellow carrots in West Asia, and they had reached Spain by the 1100s, about the same time as lemons. Kublai Khan brought carrots east to China about 1300 AD.
Then in the late 1500s, food scientists in the Netherlands bred selected yellow carrots together to make stable, large, straight, sweet, orange carrots like the ones we eat today, possibly because they thought the fad for sweet oranges would make people like other orange foods. But people still mostly fed carrots to horses and donkeys and pigs, and didn’t eat them themselves.
The older, purple, yellow, red, and white carrots were an ordinary part of West Asian cooking from the 1000s AD on; people ate carrots boiled or roasted in stews, over couscous or rice or barley. People also pickled carrots in vinegar. These boiled and pickled carrots were popular all across Central Asia, in Poland and Russia, Tibet, and Mongolia as well as in West Asia. Islamic traders brought carrots to East Africa too, though a lot of places in Africa are too hot to grow carrots.
As Islam moved into India, carrots gradually became popular there, during the Mughal Empire (1600s and 1700s AD). People ate grated carrots cooked in milk as a sweet dessert, and they ate grated carrots with chopped cilantro as a salad, too. In China, people still used carrots as medicine, but they also ate carrots boiled in soup, or sauteed in stir-fries. The red color was popular for Chinese New Year celebrations.
When Europeans first came to the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s, they brought the new orange carrots with them. People in the British colonies ate carrots boiled with stew or fried into fritters. Soon Iroquois people were also growing carrots in their gardens. Spanish invaders brought carrots to the Pueblo people and the Aztec on the Pacific side of the Americas, too. The sweet orange carrots gradually got more and more popular in Europe and the United States.
But carrots got their biggest boost during World War I and World War II, when food rationing forced people to eat them, and government propaganda campaigns – as well as Bugs Bunny – told everyone how healthy carrots were (just like medieval doctors, who thought carrots were medicine!). Today, cooler countries grow most of the world’s carrots: the United States, Poland, and China export a lot of carrots to the rest of the world. Machines do most of the planting and picking, and carrots are easy to store and ship, so carrots are cheap almost everywhere.
Learn by doing: try a purple or white carrot from the farmer’s market
More about Central Asian food
Bibliography and further reading about carrots:
Food, by Fiona MacDonald and others (2001). For kids, facts about food from all over the world. A little preachy.
Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, by Don and Patricia Brothwell (1998). Pretty specialized, but the book tells you where foods came from, and how they got to other places, and what people ate in antiquity. Not just Europe, either!
Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, by Jean Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari, Albert Sonnenfeld. (1996). Hard going because it is translated from French, but Flandrin was one of the world’s great food historians.