From J., 16 December 2009, Carrot tops: edible or poisonous?
Q: I have a small organic garden. Last summer I had LOADS of carrot greens. I tried to research whether these were edible, and could not find a clear answer. Some folks apparently eat them. Other sources said that these were “mildly” toxic. Excuse me, but even “mild” toxicity doesn’t sound very appetizing to me. I ended up composting them (waste not, want not). Any thoughts on eating carrot greens?
A: Hey J., thanks for your question. The toxicity of carrot tops is open to question – some authorities (by which I mean horticulturalists and university extension services, not random bloggers and Wikipedia) consider them safe and nutritious, and others insist they will poison you. Who is correct?
Carrots are part of the Umbelliferae family of plants, which includes not only the edible carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel, cumin, cilantro, and parsley, but also the toxic hemlock. Their membership in the same family explains their mutual affinity – who has not enjoyed the classic pairings of carrots and parsley, carrots and cumin, or (if you like cilantro), carrots and cilantro? These plants tend to store energy in the taproot, and have hollow stems with ample (often flowering) greenery. The poisonous varieties can be difficult to tell from safe wild varieties – wild carrot, for example, is almost indistinguishable from hemlock.
The belief that carrot greens are poisonous may stem from their close botanical proximity to hemlock, but I was unable to find any reported instances of carrot greens poisoning (as opposed to speculation about carrot greens as a poison). Although numerous gardening and amateur cooking sites cite the edibility of carrot greens, a search of about a dozen state poison control center lists of poisonous plants turned up only one reference. Harold McGee and Larousse Gastronomique are silent on the matter, leading me to believe that carrot greens are not widely known to be delicious, even if they are edible. On this season of Top Chef, however, finalist Kevin Gillespie prepared a beet and carrot starter featuring a bright green carrot top purée, apparently to high praise and no ill effect. And Alice Waters often recommends that, when you trim carrots, you leave a bit of the stalk, which is “edible and sweet.”
Taken together, the evidence suggests that carrot greens likely are not toxic, but have low culinary value, but I can’t say for sure and wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. If you do decide to try them, use greens from organic carrots only, to avoid problems with pesticides, and wash even those thoroughly to remove all traces of dirt and sand. If you notice the carrot greens taste bitter, however, you may want to steer clear. Alkaloids – which often are toxic, to varying degrees – generally have a bitter taste. Not all alkaloids are so toxic that you can’t consume them – caffeine, for example, is an alkaloid that many people consume daily, and the alkaloid tomatine in tomato leaves appears to be harmless in small quantities – but there’s no reason to take risks with plants when so many plants of known safety are available to eat.