Monday, 9 July 2012

Daucus carota (Άγριο καρότο)

It's almost at the end of its growing season now that the weather is overly hot. 

One of my favorite wildflowers is the wild carrot plant, Daucus carota L., also known as Queen Anne's lace. which produces large.  A characteristically Mediterranean plant, it doesn't actually produce carrots in the modern sense, but it still has culinary uses as a herb. When it first appears in the earth in early spring, its tender leaves are used in pies and stews. The leaves look rather like the leaves of its descendant. Wild carrot is the ancestor of the cultivated carrot, but its roots are much thinner. It starts off life with a small bushy tail like the green leaves on a carrot top, similar to parsley, which isn't surprising: carrot and parsley are derived from the same family, the Umbelliferae.

The wild carrot plant is a bi-annual plant with a tuberous rhizome (the Greek word for 'root'). It's found all over the Mediterranean, growing wild in most fields and on the roadsides. The flower has a characteristic dark purple, almost black spot in its centre. The blossom is large, consisting of little white umbels (umbrella shapes) of many white flowers with uneven petals. The stem of each flower can reach 1m in height. They grow very tall, almost as tall as a small orange tree; our orange groves are full of them.

The wild carrot has an interesting history since ancient times in Greece. Its stem was considered edible, although now it isn't used. Later, it was discovered by Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist who was alive about 2000 years ago, that the leaves of the plant have therapeutic properties, especially against carcinomas. These leaves are still being used in Cretan cuisine, in various dishes such as mixed braised greens and kalitsounia (small Cretan vegetarian pies), where it lends a pleasant aroma and taste.

Daucus carota is often sold in a mixture of wild horta. It's easy to pick it out once you know it.

During the Minoan period, women used to eat wild carrots, which was believed to act against obesity. In Cretan folk medicine it was recommended to drink a brew of seeds or the whole umbel against kidney infections. The juice from the root was used by pregnant women against chapping of the breast. The roots were also used as anthelmintic medication.

Dry Daucus carota
Brews made from wild carrot were used to treat cough and icterus. The seeds were used in tisanes to appease the stomach and as a milk-producing stimulant for nursing mothers. Mothers let their babies lick the roots to prevent or cure ulcers, to purify the blood and to avoid breaking out in rashes. The plant was also used to predict rain: during March and April the plant was removed from the soil, hung, and its leaves left to wilt. Before the rain, the leaves revived again.

At the end of their flowering season, the flower closes up and takes a round shape. The petals fall off and all that remains are the dry stems of the umbels. These dry stems are used as toothpicks in some places in North Africa, which shows how a single plant can be used in its entirety in a sustainable manner, with no waste. The topic of finding value in waste is a significant one now, with growing concern among scientists; onion waste (peel and offcuts) is a popular topic for scientific experiemnts these days.

Daucus carota at various stages of growth

As long as you know the area where you are picking them - that it isn't contaminated or polluted in any way - you can use them in this way too, although it can be confused with poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).

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