A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Carrot (Daucus carota)
Family: Apiaceae or Umbelliferae: umbellifer family
Other Names: Queen Anne’s lace, bird’s nest, devil’s plague (as an invasive alien plant)
ROOT: provides antioxidants, aids digestion, strengthens immune system, expels parasitic worms, improves vision
LEAF: externally: heals wounds; internally: tea soothes rashes
SEEDS: cleanses blood, alleviates edema, increases female fertility, boosts milk production, stimulates menstruation, promotes urination (diuretic)
Symbolic Meaning: bringer of light; signature of the divine lovers, Mars and Venus; Queen Anne (England) or Ana, the Earth Goddess
Planetary Affiliation: Mercury and Venus; ROOT: Mars
Whether we’re talking about its folkloric history, its agricultural development—and by extension its color—or its individual growth in the ground, there is much more to the carrot than at first meets the eye. Let’s begin with its journey from soil to sun. In its first year, the carrot has a tap root and green rosette; in its second year, the plant shoots up to form a finely structured, radiant white umbel that offers abundant nectar for all kinds of bugs, especially those with short proboscises. An interesting characteristic of the wild carrot in particular is, usually, a dark purple single flower in the middle of the umbel. Darwinian science finds no explanation for the purpose of this singular, remarkable dark blossom other than that it might signal a good landing place for flying insects.
The folklore of various regions has its own explanations for the striking purple bloom. In England, since the umbel of the wild carrot looks like lace, it’s called “Queen Anne’s lace.” It is considered that the dark blossom appeared when the good queen pricked her finger as she was embroidering, from which a drop of blood fell to the middle of the flower head. In eastern European countries, the dark blossom is called “girl’s shame” or “girl’s honor,” as it is seen as a signature concerning the plant’s connection with menstruation, fertility, and desires of the flesh. In Transylvania, it is said that if the purple blossom is missing, or especially large, it tells something about the honor of the young women in the surrounding area. Continuing along this vein, the dark bloom is said to have been bigger in the olden days but, as nowadays there is no modesty among young people, it is smaller, or even nonexistent. This could be considered a concern, as it is also said that if, one day, all the carrot flowers bloom without the purple blossom the end of the world is near.
Illustration 22. Old drawing of flowering carrot plant
While the seeds ripen, the flowering umbel pulls together until it looks like a bird’s nest—which is also one of the plant’s names. The resulting small bristled fruits easily cling to animal fur or clothing, which then spreads the plant’s reach.
Researchers cannot agree about where carrots were first cultivated, whether in Central Asia, in the Mediterranean area, or in northern Europe. The earliest record of the carrot dates from the Stone Age; carrot seeds were found in the debris of lake dwellings on Lake Constance, but they were surely from wild carrots. (The seeds of wild carrots cannot be distinguished from cultivated carrot seeds.) The oldest report regarding carrots goes back to Greece, where the fibrous, finger-sized, whitish roots were sometimes cooked and eaten. Herbal doctor Pedanius Dioscorides (~40-90 AD) noted that “the leaves crushed and mixed with honey can be applied to cancerous abscesses; a decoction of the seeds has a warming quality and it facilitates urination, menstruation, and birth; it helps drive out chronic coughs and severe stomach cramps; and conclusively, the cooked root helps [as a poultice for bites of] vipers and other poisonous animals.” Other possible references to the carrot—including the carvitas that Charlemagne (742-814) grew on his estates, or the morkrud of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)—cannot be confirmed. As the Slavic-Germanic word “mohra” merely means “edible root,” von Bingen could just as easily have been referring to parsnip or skirret. (We discuss skirret in the Forgotten and Rare Vegetables section to come.)
The carrot first expanded its global reach when Spaniards brought it to Central America in the fifteenth century, very shortly after the discovery of the New World. The Dutch transported the vegetable to France, England, and other countries in their flight from the ravaging Spanish conquerors under the leadership of notorious Duke Alba (1507-1582). The carrot first reached North America with the arrival of the first English settlers in 1607. Soon the carrot broke out of its garden confinements and spread to fallow land, where it quickly mutated back to its original wild form. As the common garden carrot and the wild carrot (endemic from Siberia to Europe and Northern Africa) belong to the same species, they easily cross-pollinate. Wild carrots are currently regarded as pesky invasive plants.
The orange strain was intentionally developed in the sixteenth or seventeenth century in the Netherlands, possibly in honor of their national color.1
The carrot became a very popular vegetable wherever it was introduced. Fashionable ladies of Europe were so impressed with it that they adorned their hats with the fine-leaved fronds. Soon older root vegetables—such as parsnips, rampion root, or skirret, which had been eaten prior to the introduction of orange carrots—were no longer cultivated, essentially forgotten until the modern day. In the meantime, the carrot rose to impressive heights in the vegetable world; it is now considered a worldwide economic agricultural product.2
The carrot took from other root vegetables more than just popularity; traditional European practical and magical lore surrounding root vegetables transferred to the new orange carrots as well. For example, carrot seeds were stored in round-bellied pots so that the roots would grow big like the pots, and Maundy (Holy) Thursday or St. Benedict’s Day (March 21) was a favorite day for sowing carrots. Silesians and other Central Europeans chose the latter holy day, since a play on words in German makes the saint’s name mean “thick legs” (bene = legs, dikt = thick), it was thought that planting on Benedict’s day would make the carrots grow thick.
In most areas, the astrological sign also played an important role on growing practices. Root crops were sown when the moon was in an earth sign (Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn), a convention biodynamic gardeners maintain today. It was thought that if carrots were sown with the moon of Cancer, the roots would become “thread-like,” like crab legs; if sown in Scorpio, they’d become wormy; in Gemini they would split—but in the sign of Pisces they would become nice and smooth. In another auspicious practice, in various rural areas peasant women would discreetly roll around naked in the carrot patch early in the morning on Pentecost to aid the carrots in growing well.
Biodynamic gardeners regard the carrot as a plant receptive of and saturated with light. It absorbs cosmic light energy to the point that the succulence of the leaves melts away and practically “vanishes,” leaving behind fine, filigree fronds. Light energy, which materializes as fragrance, essential oil, vibrant color, and sugar content, permeates the entire plant, even down into the orange-colored root. This “light energy” is also responsible for the healing nature of the plant.
The Healing Qualities of Carrots
One of the carrot’s primary benefits is its work as a gentle vermifuge countering the effects of parasitic worms. Worms, considered creatures of a moist, dark, “moony” and dank milieu, are more likely to colonize human intestines when a person’s energy is low and the body is weak. As raw carrots are too “sunny” for the parasites, they effectively expel the worms from the intestines. The essential oils of the carrot are also antibacterial. There is hardly a better means to cure bacterial diarrhea in infants than perfectly cooked and mashed carrots.
Inspired plant enthusiast and German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) once wrote: “If the eye were not sun-like, how could we ever see light?” Our eyes, thus, were “created by light for light.” As such, it is not surprising that carrots and their strong affiliation to the sunlight are so beneficial to our vision—a quality prominent in the folklore of the vegetable. A precursor of vitamin A, carotene, which is responsible for the bright orange color of the root, strengthens and protects the retina, which improves night vision. Carotene is also an antioxidant—a magnet for free radicals—and as such renders harmless cancer-inducing, free-roaming, aggressive oxygen radicals. Research has shown that people with high carotene levels in their blood are less likely to suffer from stomach or lung cancer than those with low carotene levels. This provitamin also strengthens the immune system, feeding that system’s macrophages, the “killer cells.” Excess carotene is stored in the skin, thus protecting against harmful ultraviolet rays.3 And the carrot is potent as well: just fifty grams (less than two ounces) is sufficient to cover the daily needs of the human organism.
While carrots are always a good food choice, this is especially true in the winter—in northern climates—when our bodies suffer from sunlight deficit. (Luckily, the fact that fresh young carrot leaves are good in soups can be extended throughout the year: the leaves can also be dried for tea or winter soups.) This was clearly shown by a study done in Norway, where it had been observed that school performance dropped off drastically during the dark winter months. To counter the phenomenon, the schools launched the “Oslo breakfast” program, which consisted of milk-soaked whole wheat bread (Kneippbrød) and freshly grated apple and carrot. The effort was a startling success, as the pupils became much more lively and alert (Andresen/Elvbakken 2007, 374-377).
Many consider it is the light quality of the carrot that “radiates” into the lower body chakras (Muladhara, Svadhisthana, Manipurna) of the digestive and the sexual organs. As to the former, traditional herbal lore prescribes tea made of the blossoming flowers in cases of edema, chronic kidney ailments, urinary passage ailments, and—because the plant is both diuretic and blood cleansing—for gout. As to the latter, carrots have always been associated with sexual drive and conception, though this has less to do with the obvious phallus-like signature of the taproot than with the cosmic light energies the plant transmits. According to veritable seers, we are beings of light; before we are conceived, we are attracted to the passionate fire generated by our parents so that we can incarnate in a physical body. Thus, given its high light “content,” the carrot—especially the wild carrot, which is much more aromatic and has very thin, rather woody roots—was traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and a tonic for the regenerative organs. Up until very recently, young women in the Hebrides gathered wild carrot roots to give to their partners to chew at dance festivals—or on the weekends. The Greeks also chewed wild carrot roots in the springtime, when the milder weather supported the rush of hormones. Renaissance botanist Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554) reported: “The wild carrot root gives fertility, and also helps all who merely dribble when they try to urinate, as well as helping against impotence in marriage.”
Illustration 23. Bugs Bunny
This advice gives an entirely new twist to Bugs Bunny’s cheeky question addressed to that irate old fuddy-duddy, Elmer Fudd: “What’s up, Doc?” What is implied by the taunt is an ancient archetypal association: both rabbits (hares) and carrot roots have long symbolized both sexual penchant and potency. Or, as modern phytochemists would phrase it: the plant contains porphyrin, which triggers the releases of gonadal hormones through the pituitary gland.
But it’s not just the roots that affect sexuality; carrot seeds also share in the reputation. The ancient Greeks made a drink of carrot seeds, or a suppository made from powdered seeds, to encourage menstruation or conception. In the Islamic Unani healing tradition, carrot seeds are used in love potions to increase the flow of semen (ma’jun pumba dana) and for relaxation (ma’jun rah-ul-mominin). To this day Egyptians cook the seeds in honey for aphrodisiacal purposes. The Renaissance herb doctor Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) concurred: “The seeds generate unchaste desires.” It must also be mentioned that they can have an abortive effect, and thus should be avoided by pregnant women. Other effects are that they reduce flatulence, increase the milk flow of nursing mothers, and are diuretic.
As carrot fronds are also known as an antiseptic diuretic, they are often made into a tea for bladder and prostate infections and as a prophylactic against stone ailments. The leaves can also be crushed and used as a poultice for burns, frostbite, or wounds that aren’t healing well.
Our discussion of carrots closes in sharing how the root vegetable has inspired some fantastic stories. One legend tells of a carrot seed that fell out of a seed merchant’s bag when he was crossing the Rhine. The seed grew into a carrot so gigantic the farmer who found it was able to feed two oxen all winter with it. In turn, the oxen’s horns grew to be so big that when they were blown (cattle horns are still used as horns today) the sound traveled from St. Martin’s Day (November 11) until St. George’s Day (April 23).
The King’s Bride—by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), the German Edgar Allan Poe—tells in of a girl, Anne von Zabeltau, who worked in a vegetable garden. A wicked gnome, Daucus Carota the First, was the king of all the vegetables. Upon seeing the beautiful maiden, he was possessed by desire for her and proceeded to abduct her into his musky underworld realm of roots and worms. But then one day the carrot king perceived the wailing of his subjects—the carrots, celeriacs, and turnips—as they were being chopped up and cast into a boiling pot. Trying to save them, the gnome himself fell into the soup kettle and perished. Only then could the maiden escape the dark underworld.
CULTIVATION: Although carrots require far more personal attention than do most garden vegetables, many gardeners know that the results are worth the extra effort; grown well, their sweet goodness will turn your garden into a candy store. Carrots can be sown directly into the ground as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. As the seeds are slow to germinate, the rows must be kept weed free and, after sprouting, thinned out; for the initial thinning leave each plant one to two inches apart, depending on the variety. When the young seedlings are about two inches tall, the plants may be further thinned throughout the season to a maximum of four inches apart. In order to avoid having all the carrots mature at once, successive sowings can be done up until midsummer. For ease of hoeing and for weed control, carrot seeds are best sown in rows across a raised bed; for ease of sowing one can also make seed tape. For best texture and taste, carrots should be harvested as soon as they have reached full size.
Illustration 24. Proud carrot gardener (illustration by K. Paessler, Gärtner Pötschkes Großes Gartenbuch. 1945)
SOIL: As taproots, carrots prefer loose, sandy loam free of obstructions. Long varieties need at least one foot of well-prepared soil of fine texture, so work in plenty of compost. If your soil is heavy, it is better to choose one of the shorter carrot varieties.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Try inter-sowing radishes with carrots. Sow the radishes very thinly (use about 30 percent radish seed) right in with the carrot seeds. As the radishes will germinate first, you can pick them before they start to crowd the carrots. The early-germinating radishes serve another purpose in that they will mark the rows in which you planted the slow-to-awaken carrot seed. (LB)
Carrot Salad on Alfalfa ✵ 4 SERVINGS
6 tablespoons vegetable broth ✵ ginger powder, to taste ✵ splash lemon juice ✵ sea salt ✵ black pepper ✵ 1 pound (455 grams) fresh carrots, grated ✵ 1 tablespoon cold-pressed olive oil ✵ 2 tablespoons cream (18% fat) ✵ 1 cup sprouted alfalfa or cress ✵ radishes (for garnish)
In a medium pan, slightly warm the vegetable broth. Add the ginger powder, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, all to taste. Add the grated carrots and let stand for 2 minutes. Mix in the olive oil and cream. Serve on the alfalfa, or cress. Garnish with radishes.