Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Back at the Ranch: Carrot Power

Consider the carrot.

Sure, it's just a vegetable, but how does it get to be a vegetable? And by how I don't mean its history or its preparation in the kitchen (NB: steamed with a little butter is nice), but rather how it comes to have food value.

In essence, a carrot plant is an energy collection, processing, and storage mechanism. It spends its first season producing and storing energy in the form of sugars and carbohydrates, and then in its second season it uses all that energy to flower and reproduce. This pattern of growing and collecting energy in one season and then expending energy and flowering in the next makes the carrot a biennial.

Its energy storage container — its battery if you will — is the familiar orange tapered root we call the carrot, much beloved of healthy snackers and cartoon rabbits. Although the carrot is storing all that energy and sugar for its own reproductive processes, we short-circuit the process by pulling the battery out of the ground and using that energy for ourselves.

Ladybug on carrot © Tyler Storey

Were we to leave the carrot in the ground, it would use all that stored energy to send up a fairly large flower stalk from which would grow hundreds of tiny white carrot flowers ready to form new seed. The carrot root, then depleted of almost all its sugars and carbohydrates, would be dry, tasteless, woody and, from our perspective, useless.

From the carrot's perspective — if it had a perspective, which it doesn't, because it's a carrot — that would be the perfect outcome. Reproduction in one form or another is the purpose of all plant activity. We are successful in converting plants to food when we find the right point at which to divert a plant's energy from its purposes to our plates.

We don't eat every carrot of course, or there would be no more carrots.

And we also don't normally think of Ladybugs as pollinators, but the one pictured above was fairly well coated with white carrot pollen and was undoubtedly doing her part in creating new carrot seed as she frolicked about on the flower.

One of our best-known and finest desert genera has an energy-storage scheme strikingly similar to the carrot, and some species also get pulled before they can flower, albeit for a rather different purpose. The first person to send me an e-mail correctly identifying that Desert Garden plant gets a packet of Ladybug-pollinated carrot seed in return (provided, of course, that the Ladybug did her job).


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