IF you’ve ever bribed your kids into eating carrots by saying it’ll help them see in the dark, you’ve been an unwitting victim of a military grade ‘psy-op’ (psychological operation).
This disinformation-disguised-as-an-old-wive’s-tale originated during the Battle of Britain in WWII, as England desperately tried to fend off swarms of German bomber aircraft.
Hardy and versatile: The carrot conquers the world
THE humble carrot, Daucus Carota (Sativus), is one of the most commonly grown foods around the world, finding favour for its hardiness, ease of cultivation and versatility.
The carrot we know today is far removed from its Central Asian origins – now encompassed by Iran and Afghanistan – where it was first domesticated from wild carrots. It shares the Apiaceae family with anise, celery, coriander, poison hemlock, parsley and parsnip among others.
The large part we commonly eat is the taproot, although many cultures eat the leaves and aromatic seeds as well, which is what they were originally prized for. Wild carrots can only be eaten when very young as the root quickly becomes woody, but the modern cultivars have selectively bred out this characteristic.
While the wild version’s seeds and leaves pop up throughout 5000 years of Eurasian history, being found in ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece, it is the Silk Road that is credited with bringing the Persian varieties to the world from the 10th century onwards, as well as skewing consumption to the root itself.
Wild carrot roots are whitish in colour, but by the time carrots left the Hindu Kush-Himalayan plains purple was the predominant colour, finding favour with the trading caravans of the era. Yellow carrots later came about as a result of a random genetic mutation, and over time the roots were bred to be thicker, softer and sweeter.
Muslim traders are generally credited with bringing the purple carrot to Europe via Spain somewhere between 800 and 1000AD, and by the 1100s red and yellow carrots were well established on the European continent. Heading east, Kublai Khan brought misery, destruction and carrots with him to China, becoming widespread there in the 14th century before jumping the sea to Japan in the 1700s.
Historians note that this resulted in a wide variance in carrot species as they spread to different cultures and continents, but like many common plants, as the European era began to gain steam so too did the distribution of European seedlines, reducing biodiversity globally.
The classic orange supermarket carrot is said to have been bred by Dutch farmers in the 16th century, and this is supported by paintings of the era depicting market scenes with orange carrots. Whether the Dutch were responsible for the breeding or not is still uncertain, but what is known is that in the 17th century a Dutch prince known as William of Orange led a successful rebellion against the Spanish crown.
It is said that supporters of the House of Orange grew and displayed orange carrots as an emblem of the insurrection, and that farmers were sometimes punished for the ostentatious display of orange.
Either way, as the Dutch had become the preeminent breeders of carrots in Europe, their orange version, tastier and nutritionally superior, became the standard throughout Europe and later the world.
It was only introduced to the United States after the Great War, by returning soldiers who had eaten much of it in the trenches where it could be easily grown in the mud and surrounding fields, and World War II’s rationing and propaganda solidified the carrot’s place in the modern Western diet.
Today, like many foods, China is by far the preeminent producer of global carrots, producing 48 per cent of the 42.7 million tonnes in 2016, followed by the European Union’s combined 5.9 million tonnes and central Asian Uzbekistan’s 2.3 million tonnes. By comparison, Western Australia managed to grow 112,140 tonnes in 2011/2012, exporting nearly 60 per cent of it to the Middle East, Singapore and Malaysia. The WA Agricultural Department notes “Chinese carrots dominate many of the markets that are also important to Western Australian producers. WA exporters do not compete on price … but trade successfully on quality, food safety and reliability.”
How Doctor Carrot brought down Hitler
WITH rapidly dwindling defence fighters and exhausted pilots, Britain’s key advantage to staying ahead of the feared German Luftwaffe in World War II was a secretive radar network codenamed Chain Home along the English Channel.
It allowed commanders to judge the distance and direction of incoming Luftwaffe raids and guide the remaining Spitfires and Hurricanes to intercept them.
Baffled by how the British were always there to meet their bombers, the Germans switched to night raids to make it harder for the defenders to locate their prey.
The solution was the world’s first airborne interception radars which the Royal Air Force secretly introduced in 1940, just in time for the ‘Blitz’ where London was bombed 56 nights in a row.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before the Germans cottoned on to their radar, the British Ministry of Information started seeding rumours about a heroic pilot, Group Captain John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham, whose 19 nighttime kills were ascribed to his impressive carrot-enhanced vision.
A bit far fetched, perhaps, but repeating it regularly brought it to the attention of German intelligence and the Luftwaffe allegedly started feeding pilots extra carrots – just in case.
While Vitamin A can help mildly with eyesight, it can’t help you see in the dark.
As the war raged on and German submarines sank so many Allied ships that food shortages became the norm, Britain again turned up its propaganda, but this time on its own people.
Faced with looming starvation and whole cities ‘blacked out’ every night, the Ministry of Agriculture capitalised on the carrot’s supposed night vision properties to peddle the concept that eating more “should overcome the fairly prevalent malady of blackout blindness”. The reality was that they were just a cheap, easy food to grow in England’s backyard “victory gardens”.
Following the success of wartime cartoon ‘Potato Pete’ in encouraging potato cultivation, Doctor Carrot (“the Children’s best friend”) was soon everywhere, from recipe pamphlets to billboards, before Disney was enlisted to add Carroty George and Clara Carrot to the Carrot Family. The indoctrination campaign was so successful that by 1942 the Ministry of Food used its 100,000 ton surplus of carrots as animal feed, likely compounded by an overload of official recipe suggestions that included carrot pudding, carrot marmalade, curried carrots, carrot cookies and even a dubious drink called Carrolade. (Carrot cigarettes never took off for some reason)
Carrot growing tips
• Ever had a weird shaped carrot? Chances are it was trying to navigate a path around rocks or clumps in the garden bed. Carrots need loose, fine soil to push their taproot through, so careful preparation of a garden bed is a must. Turning over the soil aerates it, and allows you to spot any lumps which can be sieved out.
• While carrots will grow well any time, the hottest parts of the year make it difficult to keep the soil moist, which is a must for carrot germination. If you’re on top of your watering or have an irrigation system in place, go for it, otherwise wait until it cools off a bit, around March. Shade cloth can help to keep the soil from drying out, but not too heavy of a grade.
• Don’t over-fertilise the soil, as excessive nitrogen is the classic cause of a forked carrot. As a general rule if the bed has been previously used to grow a different crop it will likely not need topping up, just turning over.
• Carrots work best by being sown directly in shallow, parallel trenches, and the seeds should be distributed evenly to avoid bunching and overcrowding. Gently cover the seeds with soil, and water gently for the first few weeks, so as not to disturb the soil and dislocate the tiny seeds.
• Like many plants, ‘survival of the fittest’ is the name of the game, and overcrowding will cause root tangling and make it hard to harvest one carrot at a time. Wait until the leaves appear and are big enough to help you judge who will be the strongest contender, then show the weaklings the door!
• Carrots don’t mind waiting until you’re ready, and will happily sit in the ground growing larger, so don’t feel the need to harvest them all at once, rather take what you need and leave the rest, particularly if you’re growing heirloom varieties and want to wait for it to go to seed.