What is the Potato?
- The potato that is known as an important world crop is a single species, Solanum tuberosum, belonging to the family Solanaceae.
- Other well-known crops in that family are the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), the aubergine (S. melongena), various species of chilli peppers (Capiscum) and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum).
What is its Distribution?
- Seven cultivated species are recognised, of which Solanum tuberosum has a world-wide distribution in the form of its sub-species tuberosum. Another subspecies, andigena, is cultivated in the Andes of South America. The other cultivated potatoes are restricted to the high Andes in an area stretching roughly from central Peru to central Bolivia.
- The potato possesses more related wild species than any other crop plant, a recognised total of 228. These are widely distributed through the Americas.
The Potato in Prehistory:
- Ceramics showing human/potato hybrids from the Moche culture of Peru date to c. AD 1-600.
- Earlier evidence is found freeze-dried (chuno) or partly cooked in rubbish pits. Dating shows the crop has been cultivated from at least 7000 BP.
The Potato and Europe:
- The first recorded account of potatoes by Europeans dates to 1537 when a group of Spaniards led an expedition to the Opón Valley in Colombia.
- Sir Francis Drake saw potatoes in Chile in 1578.
- The potato arrived in Europe towards the end of the 16th century.
- It reached Spain c. 1570.
- It then spread to Italy and Portugal.
- Charles d’Ecluse, or Clusius, a herbalist, was a central figure in the spread of the potato through Germany, Low Countries, France and Switzerland.
- 1590 is a likely date for the potato’s arrival in England in the ships of John Gerard. Contrary to popular belief, it is unlikely that Sir Walter Raleigh was responsible for this, although he may have been instrumental in taking them to Ireland in the mid-17th century.
- The first botanical description was that of Caspar Bauhin in 1596.
- Bauhin sent potatoes to France c. 1600.
- Taken to Norway, and thence Sweden and Denmark from Scotland by mid 18th century.
- General adoption in Eastern Europe from Germany in late 18th – early 19th century.
The Potato and the Rest of the World:
- Directly introduced to Canary Islands from Peru c. 1622.
- Taken to India and China by British missionaries in late 17th century and known in Japan and parts of Africa by same period.
- New Zealand c. 1769 and adopted by Maoris c. 1840.
The Irish Potato Famine:
- In 1845 Ireland was struck by an epidemic of the fungal disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as potato blight or potato murrain.
- There had been shortages prior to then due to bad weather or less destructive diseases.
- A likely source for the blight was the eastern United States, where blight had largely destroyed the potato crops of 1843 and 1844.
- Once introduced diffusion was rapid. By late summer and early autumn of 1845 it had spread throughout the greater part of northern and central Europe; an area stretching from Switzerland to Scandinavia and Scotland, and from Poland to the west coast of Ireland.
- For the tenant farmers, or cottiers, the blight destroyed their winter stores, imperilled their seed for the coming year, and reduced them to killing and eating the pig by which they paid the rent because they had no potatoes on which to feed it.
- The crop of 1846 was also almost completely destroyed.
- By 1847 the traditional relationship between farmer and labourer was thoroughly disrupted. There was also an enormous deficiency of potato seed and prices of Indian meal were such that people were reduced to eating those potatoes they would have used for seed.
- Mass death and emigration reduced the population from almost 8.2 million in 1841 to fewer than 6.6 million in 1851.
Why is the Potato so important?
- Important source of carbohydrates
- Useful amounts of vitamins and minerals e.g. 1lb cooked new potatoes = 75 mg vitamin C.
- Deficient in vitamins A and D, although this was made good by drinking milk in 18th century Ireland or pre-war Poland.
Donnelly, Jr. J.S. 2001. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Sutton Publishing: Stroud.
Hawkes, J.G. 1990. The Potato: Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press: London.
Salaman, R.N. 1949. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.