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Welcome to Ep 192 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best. 

Wild carrots are indigenous to Europe and known as Queen Anne’s Lace, as well as Devil’s Plague, and Fool’s Parsley, this wild carrot variety was known primarily for its use as an herb and in medicinal recipes. The formal, cultivated carrot arrived in England by the 15th century, and right up until Shakespeare’s lifetime, carrots were mostly purple. According to the Wild Carrot Museum in the UK, orange colored carrots arrived in Europe right in the middle of Shakespeare’s lifetime, making the orange carrot a new thing for Shakespeare. In fact, one reason orange carrots are thought to have caught on so quickly in popularity is because cooking the orange carrots didn’t stain the pots nearly as bad as cooking with purple ones. The new carrot took a firm hold in the cultivation of this root vegetable and by the time British settlers arrived in North America, the carrots they brought with them were primarily orange and sometimes white. When it comes to finding carrots in Shakespeare’s plays, the word “carrot” isn’t in there. We can only partially fault Shakespeare for not giving us a nice reference to carrots for this week’s episode because the word “carrot” was just getting started in the English language. “Carrot” arrived in English around 1530, but in popular vernacular, there was a great deal of overlap between the names for root vegetables. Carrots, parsnips, and parsley were often referred to interchangeably by the same names. In fact, in Old English, there’s not a good way to distinguish between carrots and parsnips, since they were both called “moru” coming from the, fittingly, root word for “edible root.” 

Our guest this week, Phil Simon, is an expert in historical horticulture and he joins us today to help us understand what Shakespeare would have called this orange root vegetable, whether or not it was a regular at the dinner table, and to explain the history of what kind of carrots Shakespeare would have enjoyed. 

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Dr. Phil Simon is a USDA, Agricultural Research Service – Research Geneticist and Professor of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research in vegetable genetics and breeding has focused on carrot improvement, targeting improved flavor and nutritional quality, nematode, disease and abiotic stress resilience. He led the development of widely used carrot germplasm with high carotene content, sweet, mild flavor, purple color, and root-knot nematode resistance. To complement his breeding effort, he has trained 35 graduate students, developed breeding tools, including the sequencing of the carrot genome, and he has collected carrot, Allium, and other vegetable germplasm in 10 collecting expeditions in a dozen countries. 

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Gerard’s Herbal, 1597: The most famous of Elizabethan herbals
  • A nievve herball, or, Historie of plantes: Translation of Rembert Dodoens by Henry Lyte, 1578
  • Illustration by Giuseppe Rosaccio,1598
  • An illustration of carrots from Gerard’s Herbal
  • Chronica Horticulturae, 2011, Peasant digging carrots from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, Roma, 1380-1400
  • Carrots from Vilmorin’s Vegetable Garden, 1586: Shows Early Horn and Dutch Horn varieties of carrots.
  • Cultivated and wild carrots from the Juliana Anicia Codex of 512
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Books & Resources Recommended by Phil Simon:

Where available, affiliate links are used for recommended resources.

Summaries and References for the two key seminal papers by O. Banga on carrot origins in Europe, based information available in 1957. 

Banga, O. Origin of the European cultivated carrot. Euphytica 6, 54–63 (1957).

Banga, O. The development of the original European carrot material. Euphytica 6, 64–76 (1957).

An updated review of the historical record for carrot domestication by P.W. Simon in 2000.

Simon, P.W. Domestication, historical development, and modern breeding of carrot. Plant Breeding Reviews 19, 157-190 (2000).

History and iconography of carrot by J. Stolarczyk and J. Janick in 2011.

Stolarczyk, J. and J. Janick. Carrot: History and iconography. Chronica Horticulturae 51, 13-18 (2011).

The World Carrot Museum created and operated by J. Stolarczyk 

Link to Phil Simon’s USDA vegetable breeding program information: 

Useful links  on purple carrots (and carrots in general):

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