Next week, many of us will be thinking about putting out a few carrots out for Rudolph and his sleigh-pulling comrades, or perhaps contemplating the preparation of our own carrot-y accompaniments for our festive dinner.

Whether red-nosed reindeer or human, carrots are certainly a tasty winter vegetable, whose characteristic orange hue also raises some interesting questions about the relationship between palate and palette. Carrot is one of those words that has very definite associations with a particular colour, and I’ve found myself wondering, why (in English at least) so few other vegetables have ever proved popular as shade names.* Fruit-associated colours such as plum, raspberry, and lemon abound. We might easily describe a wall as biscuit or candy-coloured or seek out a sweater in hues of chartreuse or grenadine. Over the past century or so, countless alcoholic beverages, different types of confectionary, individual deserts and even the occasional nut have been proud to make their appearance on our collective Anglophone shade card, but vegetables lend their names to colours very rarely. Why is it, when cabbages grow in so many beautiful, distinctive shades, do none feature in colour’s diverse nomenclature?   And why is it, when vegetables are associated with particular colour names or standards, that they often become the focus of ridicule and consternation (as was the case with “Brown Broccoli” in nineteenth-century America). 

“Broccoli Brown” – a shade first introduced to colour nomenclature by Scottish geologist, Robert Jameson in 1805, is a shade that’s recently been revived by Farrow & Ball in their Nature’s Shades collaboration with the Natural History Museum.

I have perused many historic colour cards from interior paints to plastic buttons, and recently examined the shade names that were produced in association with each new season’s hues by the Textile Color Card Association of America  (TCCA) for every year from 1916 to the present. I’ve found it fascinating to note that, on both sides of the Atlantic, carrots – along with aubergines (egg plants) and peas – are the only vegetables to be associated with colour names with any degree of consistency or regularity. 

If it is rare for a root crop to become a recognisable shade name, what makes “carrot” even more unusual is that it is, of course, a vegetable with several different colourful varieties.

carrots come in many hues!

Carrots can be grown in different varieties of white, yellow, red and purple, yet what we now think of as “carrot-coloured” is a distinctive and singular bright orange shade.

carroty carrots

The first carrots, grown in Iran and Afghanistan, were purple and yellow, though genetic evidence for the existence of bright orange varieties has now been found to date back to the first two centuries, BCE. Such evidence refutes the long-standing and completely apocryphal “royal conspiracy” which claimed that orange carrots were developed and grown in the Netherlands exclusively to promote the interests of the royal house of that name. The Netherlands abounded with excellent agronomists and the brightly-coloured modern carrot varieties that Dutch farmers developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were simply part of a wider movement of agricultural innovation. The association between orange carrots and the displacers of the Habsburg monarchy post-dated the development of these new carrot varieties, and the most that can be said about the associations between orange carrots and the House of Orange is that their “the conspicuous display at market” might, in the words of Simon Schama, sometimes have been interpreted as a “provocative gesture” of support for the descendants of William the Silent. 

Pieter Aertsen, Christ in the house of Martha and Mary (1553), thought to be one of the first Dutch visual representations of orange carrots

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus published his Species Plantarum, standardising plant nomenclature. Daucus Carota appeared in this taxonomy, and carrot varieties – the majority of which were, by then, bright orange –  continued to be developed and consumed all over Europe throughout the eighteenth century. By the late eighteenth century, “carrot-coloured” was a phrase in frequent (and not always positive) use in reference to red hair and by the middle of the 1800s, “carrot” became an adjective firmly associated with anything of bright orange hue. 

Mmmm. . . . carrots. First World War Carrot Cookery leaflet issued by the Ministry of Food.

When, in the 1770s, Arthur Young toured Britain’s farming counties, he noted carrots being fed to pigs and horses, but a century later this nutritious vegetable – full of natural sugars, vitamins, and beta carotene – had become a cheap and useful staple of the country’s human diets as well. During the First World War, the British Ministry of Food issued a recipe leaflet extolling the carrot as a means of achieving food security and national self-sufficiency and Britons were counselled to “save room in the ships by eating home grown foods.” “Carrots are plentiful! Carrots are wholesome! Carrots are cheap! Carrots are useful!” the recipe leaflet declared. 

Second world war vegetable promotion

The carrot continued to hold a central place in British diets during the second world war, when food was rationed and the populace was urged to grow and consume their own vegetables.

“Dig for Victory” embroidered headrest, complete with carrots and other vegetables. Imperial War Museum.

All were assured of the benefits of consuming the wholesome carrot.

Unless you were seriously vitamin deficient, the consumption of carrots would not actually improve your eyesight, but the vegetable was successfully promoted under this rubric by the Ministry of Food’s jolly, high-stepping, “Doctor Carrot” and his briefcase, stocked full of vitamin A.

here comes Doctor Carrot!

Cheap, plentiful and healthy, carrots became completely ubiquitous in wartime Britain, and even played their part in D-Day, when the phrase “les carrottes sont cuites,” broadcast by the BBC, alerted the French resistance to the imminent Normandy landings. But by this time, wartime Britain felt overwhelmed by, and rather tired of, its favourite brightly-coloured vegetable. When a Mrs Marjorie Casey won a BBC radio recipe competition for her “carrot savoury pudding” a presenter had to reassure the programme’s listeners that the pudding was so delicious that it had been “endorsed by everyone judging, even a dismal visitor who had previously stated ‘if you mention carrot to me again, I shall scream’” 

wartime scarf, with a completely genius repeating pattern featuring Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete (look closely!) Imperial War Museum.

At this moment, then, when carrots were culturally omnipresent, what became of the connection between the vegetable and the familiar bright colour that was, by then, associated with it? 

“Carrot Red” from the Wilson Colour Chart (1938)

In 1938, Robert F Wilson had classified “carrot red” as a British standard colour. Wilson liked to have real-world referents for the colours he included in his national palette, and in this case had decided to standardise a “very old colour term”  by “matching to young carrots.” After the war, however, Wilson summarily removed “carrot” from the British Colour Council’s (BCC) shade cards and nomenclatures, noting, in his Dictionary of Colours for Interior Decoration (1951), that it was “a vegetable suffering some unpopularity since its ubiquitous appearance in the daily diet of British Islanders in World War II”  

Wilson replaced the “Carrot” shade with a new shade called “Honeydew,” which had been standardised by the Textile Color Card Association of America (TCCA) back in 1926. Honeydew was a much softer, much more yellowish hue, with a name evocative of the sweetness of fruits grown in warm and faraway climes – rather than the by-then all too familiar, tedious and homely British Carrot.

War and Peace pudding. Pyramids of carrots.

Colour often has a flavour, and perhaps, when we have eaten an awful lot of something that’s supposed to be very good for us, we don’t want to savour that flavour any longer. Certainly, in post-war Britain, when the nation’s colour tastes were crying out for the rare, the exotic – the honeydew – carrots held no relish. The removal of “carrot” from Britain’s standard shade nomenclatures – and perhaps the absence of vegetables from shade cards more generally – has something to say to us about what a powerful, sensory, and emotional experience colour can be. Like a Proustian madeleine, a colour and its evocative nomenclature might transport us to a vast arena of memories and moods, feelings and desires. That’s why so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century shade names reference precious jewels, exotic fruits, intoxicating cocktails and rare art objects: a world of wealth, luxury, and distant yearning, sitting out there, somewhere, just beyond our reach. Perhaps it’s time to refresh our palates, once again? Champagne and chartreuse are all very well, but rhubarb and carrot are just fine by me.

Fleckit, knitted in the rhubarb shade of Schiehallion

* speakers of other languages! Please share your interesting food-associated shade names in the comments (especially savory or vegetable-associated shades).

Enjoy your festive break! And don’t forget to leave a carrot out for Rudolph!