Thousands of years ago, in what’s now Afghanistan, people unearthed the tangled, gnarled roots of Queen Anne’s Lace—a ubiquitous, hairy-stemmed plant with a spray of tiny white flowers. These fibrous, twisted roots were white and bitter-tasting, but they had an appealing spicy, piney, earthy aroma. They were the unpromising ancestor of one of America’s most popular root vegetables (second only to the mighty potato): Today, they’re mostly consumed in the form of two-inch orange slugs, marketed under the label “baby carrots.” So how did this white, woody root become orange, as well as purple and yellow and even red? Listen in now to find out—and hear the story of the baby carrot’s invention.
To anyone who’s tasted the root of Queen Anne’s Lace, a ubiquitous weed found by roadsides all over the world, the fact that our ancestors bothered to eat it at all is somewhat perplexing. But that’s just one of the carrot’s many mysteries—perhaps just as perplexing is the carrot’s contemporary color. After all, as the University of Wisconsin carrot breeder Irwin Goldman told us, the existence of anything but a white carrot is a genetic mistake that, from a biological perspective, makes no sense. The orange color in a carrot comes from a chemical that’s found in plant leaves. We don’t usually see it, because it’s masked by the green chlorophyll, but when autumn comes and the chlorophyll fades, the same pigment is responsible for fall’s glorious displays of yellows, oranges, and reds. In leaves, that orange chemical functions as a sunscreen, protecting the plant from UV damage. So what in the world is it doing brightening a root, deep underground?