Monday, May 21, 2012

Meatless Monday: Stalking the Wild Carrot

Their leafy tops are sprouting up everywhere — in lawns, along fences, in the sidewalk cracks. What are these weeds that look like carrots?

The answer? Wild carrot — Daucus carota — a member of the parsley family and the close relative to the big orange carrot we love to eat. In fact, it is from the wild carrot that the cultivated carrot was bred. 

Daucus carota is a biennial plant (as is its domesticated cousin), meaning that it takes two years to complete its life cycle. In its first year it has a frilly green top and puts its energy into its tap root, a long, grayish-white one in the case of the wild carrot. The wild carrots in the photo were all found within two blocks from my house; the largest one was plucked from the edge of the dentist's yard just up the street. It is pretty good-sized and did indeed exude the strong scent of carrot when I yanked it from the ground.

In its second year Daucus carota blooms with a flower cluster known as an umbel (like an umbrella) and sets its prolific amount of seed. In this stage it is known as Queen Anne’s-Lace and is quite beautiful. Check out photos of its entire life cycle here and here

Daucus carota  grows throughout North America (with the exception of the Canadian province of Alberta). It is concerned a “noxious weed” in several states and is under plant quarantine in the state of Washington. It can cross with the cultivated carrot, wreaking havoc by hybridizing the crop and ruining the seeds.

However, some consider this “noxious weed” a thing of value. Foraging has become very trendy. New York naturalist “Wildman” Steve Brill, who in 1986 was arrested in Central Park for eating a wild plant, is renowned for his foraging forays into urban parks. The wild carrot is indeed something for which some adventurous people forage. Among the recipes I found was one for sautéing wild carrots in olive oil with mint. Others describe shredding the root for use in salad or simmering the roots until tender. Some prize Daucus carota for its uses in alternative medicine

I, however, don’t intend to eat my recent harvest – for two reasons. The first being that I do not know the lead content of the soil in which these wild carrots grew. In New Haven, a former industrial center with many miles of heavily traveled roads and old housing stock, lead content in the soil runs very high. Most people who want to grow food resort to raised planting beds. In what type of crop is lead most likely to accumulate? The roots! In fact, the U Conn Soil Test Lab advises refraining from growing beets, carrots, or potatoes if the results for lead run high.  

Here is the second caveat. If you are planning to eat it, be certain that what you have plucked is indeed Daucus carota and not its close relative, poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Poison hemlock lacks the carrot scent and does not have the fine hairs you will find on the wild carrot leaves and stalks, but the two plants are otherwise very similar in appearance and are found in many of the same settings. BE SURE.  Hemlock, you may recall is what killed Socrates.

If you decide to forage, be careful out there.

I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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