Sunday, November 9, 2014

Orange, oranges and carrots

Do you remember the James Burke tv series Connections showing surprising relationships between unrelated things? There are plant stories like that, for example, of orange, carrots and politics.

Wild carrots, Daucus carota, known as Queen Ann's lace in the U.S. (parsley family, Apiaceae) are native all across Europe and the Middle East. Humans have used carrots medicinally for a very long time (see for example Culpeper, 1814 edition of 1633 book; Mrs. Grieve 1932).) Carrots were first domesticated in Afghanistan, producing a readily-grown carrot that was, however, stringy and bitter. These carrots, distributed out from Afghanistan were multicolored: purple, red, orange, yellow and off-white, but especially purple and whitish. People all over Eurasia grew them for medicine, but also as a food flavoring. Like bay leaves or garlic cloves, they were added for flavor but not necessarily eaten.

About 1600, plant breeders in Holland bred a truly edible carrot. Everyone agrees that all our modern carrot varieties, even the heritage carrots, are derived from the carrot variety Long created in Holland at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Long carrot was orange.

Nobody can prove that the Dutch growers had a political agenda creating an orange carrot, but, whether or not they did, soon after that the orange carrot became very political.

The connection is this:

The provinces of the Netherlands became part of Spain when Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, whose lands included the Netherlands, married the Holy Roman Emperor Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1477. Their son Philip married Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castilee and their son Charles was King of Castile and Aragon as well as Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Burgundy.

Meanwhile, in the early 1500's Protestantism swept through the Netherlands and many people embraced the new religion. The kings in Spain, (Charles V (1500-1558), Philip II (1527-1598), Philip III (1578-1621) and Philip IV (1605-1665)) remained Catholic, militantly so, and treated Protestants as heretics.  Recant or die!

Spanish rule of the Netherlands became increasingly repressive. Spain's governor of two of the provinces of the Netherlands, Zeeland and Utrecht, William, Prince of Orange (1553-1584), supported his subjects until, when the Dutch resistance turned to rebellion in the late 1560s, he became their leader.

Orange became the color of the Protestants. This was a coincidence.

The city and province of Orange (also spelled Oranje), where William was prince, had nothing to do with the color orange. Now French, Orange is north of Avignon. Its name goes back to Roman times, as Arausio, unrelated to oranges or the color orange. There was no orange in Prince William's heraldry. arms of William Prince of Orange either.

However, in that same century, oranges and the word orange came to Northern Europe.

Citrus fruits, including oranges, are native to the Far East. They gradually spread to India and the Middle East. By that time, Islamic empires ranged from Bagdad to Cairo to Seville and trade with Christian Europe was very limited. Oranges were brought to Europe by the Moors and grown in the little band of southern Spain that is warm enough to raise oranges. For the most part political divisions kept them in Spain.

orange tree

In 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile succeeded in defeating the last Moorish kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. That put all Spain's orange groves in Christian hands as well. The monarchs and their descendants turned their attention to Europe. Spanish orange producers began selling their oranges across northern Europe, facilitated by the fact that the King of Aragon and Castile was also the Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Burgundy. Tasty sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis, lemon family Rutaceae) were brought to Europe about that time, presumably brought from Asia by the Portuguese and planted in southern Spain and Portugal. Arriving in northern Europe in the late 1400s and especially the 1500s, oranges were a hit. Since the fruit was new, it had no name in English, Dutch, German or..., so generally the name was based on the Castilian naranja or Portuguese laranja from the Arabic naranj. That came out "orange" in English, "oranje" in Dutch. (orange in many languages scroll down)

At the time, European languages did not distinguish the color orange with its own word. It was "reddish yellow" or "yellowish red". Within a few years of the adoption of the word for the fruit, the same word was being used as a color name. (1557 for the first use of orange as a color word in English).

carrotsThus, when, in the 1570s, Prince William of Orange rallied the Protestant Dutch rebels, people hearing it thought of oranges and the color orange.

(That is why Dutch settlers in South Africa called their country the Orange Free State and the flag of Ireland has an orange band.)

Whether or not the Dutch growers were making a point by creating a better ORANGE carrot (seems likely to me), the carrot got caught up in the politics of the 1600s. One of the few orange foods, Protestants embraced it, growing them in large numbers. At the same time, traditional Catholics rejected them. For at least a century, eating orange carrots was a political statement!

The fight for Dutch independence was protracted: Spain did not recognize Dutch independence until 1648. The family of William, Prince of Orange's family has led Holland since his time.

Modern carrots have been bred in a rainbow of colors, by crossing wilder carrots with the tasty domestic carrots and selecting for the edible characteristics of the orange parent and the colors of the purple or red or yellow or white parent. See wonderful USDA photo

And we have long forgotten the politics of orange carrots. But in the 1600s, a new color, a revolutionary leader and a new vegetable converged to make eating carrots a political act.

Comments and corrections welcome.

References:  All your carrot questions answered!
McPhee, J. 2000. Oranges. Farrar, Stauss and Giroux, New York.
Roose, M. L., R. K. Soost and J. W. Cameron. 1995. Citrus Citrus (Rutaceae). pp. 443-449 IN: J. Smartt and N. W. Simmonds, Evolution of Crop Plants. 2nd ed. Longman, London.
Vaughan, J. G. and G. Geissler. 1997. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Webber, H. J., revised by W. Reuther and H. W. Lawton. 1967-1989. History and Development of the Citrus Industry. The Citrus Industry, revised edition.

Kathy Keeler


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