Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, is another of my favourite plants. Like Alexanders, Cow Parsley, Perfoliate Alexanders, Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus) and a host of my favourite plants, it is in the Parsley family, the Apiaceae (formerly the Umbelliferae).
Wild Carrot is a biennial herb with feathery, pinnate leaves and a pungent carroty smell when crushed. It flowers from June to September, and its mature umbels are a dull white with distinctive three-forked or pinnate lower bracts. Younger umbels usually have a pink tinge (as in the photograph above) and when mature, the flowerhead often has a single red flower in the centre. This may act as a lure for insects, signalling that the flower is worth visiting for food. Once the Wild Carrot has flowered the umbel folds inwards and the forked bracts become more obvious. The dried seedheads will often persist throughout the winter, when they look wonderful covered in frost, though they can sometimes become detached and blow around, spreading the seeds, rather like a tumbleweed. The seeds have hooked spines, which stick to animal fur and woolly socks, enabling them to be moved from place to place. See the Microscopy UK website for some lovely and fascinating photos of Wild Carrot umbels at different stages of development. Wild Carrot seeds need a period of cold to break their dormancy and so it’s best to sow them in the autumn.
There are three sub-species of Daucus carota in the British Isles. Wild Carrot, subspecies carota, is widespread in the British Isles, where it grows in grassy places on fairly infertile, well-drained, often calcareous soils. The cultivated Carrot, subspecies sativus, is cultivated and also grows in the wild as a casual on tips and as a relic of cultivation. It has the familiar swollen root. The beautiful Sea Carrot, subspecies gummifer, has stout, almost succulent stems, darker green leaves and is confined to southern and western coasts. Like Cow Parsley, Wild Carrot is also known as Queen Anne’s Lace. Other names include Birds Nest Weed, Bees’ Nest, and Devil’s Plague. The last name seems appropriate for the United States, where Wild Carrot is an introduced noxious weed. Here, the dried seed heads are sometimes considered to be a fire hazard and a threat to the honey industry. North America’s native carrot is the related Daucus pusillus (American Wild Carrot or Rattlesnake Weed).
Wild Carrot has a spindly, forked white root, unlike the cultivated Carrot. Carrots were probably domesticated in western Asia. The Carrot Museum website gives a fascinating potted history of the process, which produced today’s fleshy, sweet, pigmented and unbranched edible root.
Carrot colour changed over the years too. The first domesticated Carrots were probably coloured purple with anthocyanins. (Dark red and purple carrots are still grown in Afghanistan today.) At some point mutations occurred to remove the purple pigmentation, resulting in white and yellow varieties of carrots. Most of today’s carrots are orange. Orange carrots are thought to date back about four hundred years. However, there is no documentary evidence to confirm the popular story that orange carrots were developed to honour the Dutch House of Orange. As the Carrot Museum website says: “The orange carrot came first – the Royal family dedication second.”
Carrots are a well-known and popular vegetable and nowadays different coloured carrots are back in fashion – yellow, white, purple with an orange core and completely purple, as well as orange, as well as rainbow seed mixtures. I grow a variety of colours on my allotment. The Plants For A Future website describes Wild Carrot roots as “thin and stringy” but the plants have a variety of medicinal uses and the seed is used as a traditional “morning after” contraceptive. (Beware that the roots of Wild Carrot can induce uterine contractions and so should not be used by pregnant women.) There are even a couple of records of phytophotodermatitis in workers canning carrots during the Second World War, by Vickers (1941) and
Wild Carrot flowers are attractive to many insects, including Common Red Soldier Beetles, Rhagonycha fulva (see my post on Ammi majus). In the south and south-west of England, Rose Chafers (Cetonia aurata, a beautiful, large, metallic beetle) find the flowers irresistible. In June 2010 on the Isles of Scilly I managed to take several photos of these handsome beasts.