A few minutes after midnight on the 19th of November 1940, John Cunningham in his RAF Beaufighter, shot down a Junkers 88 over East Wittering in Sussex. The incident was not only to make the young Flight Lieutenant famous as Cats Eyes Cunningham, it was also to result in those immortal words uttered by so many parents to their children, ‘eat up your carrots dear, they will help you see in the dark’. Newspaper editors were quick to follow up reports that Cunningham’s incredible night vision was linked to his fondness for carrots. The story of how the RAF used such misinformation about night crews being fed large quantities of carrots is now almost as well known as the fact that carrots are good for the eyes. The purpose of this deception was to disguise the real reason behind their improved success in locating enemy planes using the newly introduced technology of radar. However, as with much effective propaganda the story was not entirely without a basis in fact, and newspaper headlines such as ‘Carrots DFC is Night Blitz Hero’ not so way off target.
It had been known since the 1930s that carotene, the yellow-orange pigments that gives carrots their colour, is transformed by the lining of the intestines into vitamin A and that deficiencies in this compound result in poor night vision. Inspired by this information war time agriculturists managed to develop new high-carotene carrots containing two or three times the amount of carotene found in conventional carrots. The amount of work involved in this task makes it likely that this was genuinely intended to help minimise night blindness in aviators rather than being part of the elaborate misinformation surrounding the introduction of radar.
Whatever the truth behind the tales of carrot crunching night pilots, what is certain is that this was not the only role that this humble vegetable was to play in the British war effort. With sugar in short supply, slices of carrot being of high sugar content were incorporated into sweet pies and flans. The roots were boiled down and reduced to make carrot jam, or roasted until black to make a coffee substitute. However, the carrot had not always been so sweet, or even orange. The first carrots to be cultivated appear to have been introduced to Europe from Afghanistan. These eastern carrots were dark red to almost black in colour, being pigmented by compounds called anthocyanins which also give beetroot its distinctive colour. Like beetroot, purple carrots exude their colour during cooking turning stews and soups a nasty brownish purple. By the mid nineteenth century modern anthocyanin free yellow and orange carrots were developed in Holland. These rapidly replaced the older red types, which are now virtually extinct.
The wild carrot which is a member of a family of plants know affectionately by botanists as the ‘Umbels’ is a master of deception in its own right. The Umbelliferae, to give the family its formal title, contains many cultivated species such as celery and parsnip, and the herbs fennel, parsley and aniseed, but also contains many toxic species including hemlock and the blistering giant hogweed. The Umbels are so called because their flowers are grouped into clusters like miniature umbrellas, which in turn are grouped into larger umbrellas to produce a mass of flowers. The wild carrot, which is not uncommon in Britain, can be distinguished from the other Umbels because the central flower of its umbrella is not white like the rest, but is dark purple or pink. This solitary pigmented flower is thought to act as a decoy beetle, tricking passing insects into visiting the mass of flowers and hopefully bringing about pollination. Not surprisingly traditional herbalists spotted this curiosity and regarded these pigmented flowers as possessing special healing properties.