The carrot is a plant primarily known for its sweet and tender cultivated roots but you can also use the other, largely forgotten parts of the plant that have a long history of culinary and medicinal use, stretching back hundreds of years.
You can find wild carrots in grassy areas, chiefly on calcerous / limestone ground, but only in places which are not persistently mown. The plant can be spotted by roadsides, meadows, and are particularly fruitful on cliffs and in coastal areas, at least in the more southern parts of Britain. In other areas of the country, you are only really likely to see an escaped cultivated variety.
As an umbellifer, carrot could be confused with poisonous lookalikes, but only when young. Even then, with close inspection, it can quickly be positively identified through its characteristic features. The carrot family as a whole exemplify an adage of foraging and wild crafting; observing plants throughout the year.
Carrots are notably roughly-hairy, and the flowering stems especially so. As a biennial, wild carrot grows initially as a basal rosette, before flowering in the second year. The root is yellow-white, generally smaller and thinner than the cultivated varieties. It is also considerably more woody, usually displaying lateral and fibrous roots.
Carrot leaves typically reach 20-25cm long. They are wedge-shaped, usually tri-pinnate with long petioles, and comparatively narrow when looking at other members of the family. As the flower stem rises, the leaves become smaller, less finely divided, and alternately-spaced on the stem. Carrots typically reach up to 100cm or so during flowering.
The bristly flowering stem is usually solid and always ridged. The lacy, white compound umbel, sits on top of a very distinctive frilly green collar of long, leafy, downward pointing, branched bracts. Growing to 2-3cm long, this is one of the distinguishing features of the carrot. Individual umbels are typically 3-7cm across, and each tiny 5-petaled flower is often no more than 3mm wide. The compound umbel can reach 30-40cm in diameter, and will often, but not always, have a solitary burgundy red flower right in the centre.
After pollination, as the seeds ripen, you will notice the compound umbel turning upwards in a distinctive, concave ‘birds nest’ shape. The little seeds are oval-shaped, typically 2.5 - 4mm long, covered with four rows of spikes.
Parts used for food: Seeds, leaves.
Seeds in late summer, through the autumn. Leaves are best when young. This umbellifer, like many relatives, contains photo-toxic furanocoumarins. Some individuals may find the sap causes mild contact dermatitis. Furanocoumarins are broken down with cooking, and harmless to ingest in dietary quantities. For safety, harvest leaves with gloves and sleeves to protect your skin.
Diuretic, emmenogogue, anti-lithic, carminative.
All parts of the plant have uses as food or medicine. The documented medicinal use of wild carrot seeds can be traced back to classical times, where the Roman Encyclopaedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 BC – 50 AD), mentioned the use of wild carrot seeds in his work ‘De medicina’, written almost 2000 years ago.
Carrot seeds are a prime example of forgotten flavours. The wonderfully aromatic seeds never fail to impress, carrying hints of citrus, cumin, coriander, and caraway.
The esteemed herbal author, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, wrote that carrot leaves help to control blood sugar levels, and she used them as part of a nutritional approach to help treat diabetes. Unless young, they are better cooked than raw! The roots are generally too fibrous and woody to bother with, apart from making stock, to which they impart good flavour.
Many of the medicinal claims for the wild carrot point to its use in supporting the elimination system, stimulating the flow of urine, and to the removal of waste products by the kidneys. The seeds are anti-lithic, helping to prevent or clear out sand and gravel from the kidneys, and so are also useful in cases of gout. Like other plants in the carrot family, the seeds are also carminative, helping calm and settle the stomach and easing flatulence.
Wild carrot seeds have also traditionally been used for the very same purpose as its now extinct relative - ‘silphion’. This particular plant was extremely sought after by the Romans - infamous for their orgies - and was widely used as a contraceptive aid before its eventual demise. For practical medicinal purposes, wild carrot seeds are made into a tincture, as otherwise they need chewing on to release the essential oils.
Wild carrot seeds are known to work only when used at the very early onset of pregnancy, so traditionally a tincture would be taken everyday for the week or so around the period of ovulation. The seeds can induce uterine contractions, and their use is not recommended for pregnant women.
Disclaimer! Before using powerful medicines such as carrot seeds, always consult a qualified healthcare practitioner!
To find out more about ipso phyto foraging courses, see: http://www.meetup.com/Town-Country-Foraging-Walks-Courses/ or gather some free virtual foraging tips by visiting the ipso phyto Youtube channel.