Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Besides shamrocks, another plant associated with St. Patrick's day and the Irish is the potato. Potatoes had been an important crop to humanity long before they made it to Ireland.
Wild ancestors of the modern potato have been traced to the Andes mountains in Peru and Bolivia. The Incas were using potatoes at least 2,000 years before the first European explorers made their way into the New World.
The name potato is thought to originate from the Incan word for potato, "papa". According to the National Potato Council, a Spaniard named Castellanos was the first European to encounter the potato in an Incan village back in 1536. He called the potatoes he saw "truffles" as they resembled the underground fungal delicacy familiar to Europeans.
It's not surprising Castellanos thought he was looking at truffles when he saw the Incan's potatoes. They ranged in size from a small nut to an apple and came in a variety of flesh and skin colors, including black like a truffle.
The Incans ate their potatoes both raw and cooked, and also dried them to preserve them, rehydrating them with water much like instant mashed potatoes we have today. They also had medicinal uses for the potato, in preventing rheumatism and aiding indigestion.
When the Spanish brought potatoes back to Europe, acceptance of this new crop was very slow in developing. At best, it was considered a novelty by the nobility who could afford the time and money to grow an exotic plant from the New World.
To most though, potatoes were regarded with extreme caution. Potatoes are a member of the Solanaceae family, which includes 85 genera and about 2,800 different species, including eggplant, tomato, and peppers. Among these 2,800 species are many found to be poisonous. So it makes sense that Europeans were wary of this plant the Spanish brought back from the New World telling everyone it was safe to eat–they thought it might be poisonous.
In fact, parts of the potato plant are poisonous and unsafe to eat. The green portions of the plant contain poisonous alkaloids solanine and chaconine. Early attempts at creative cuisine using potato nearly killed the potato as a food, and nearly killed the diners too! Reportedly Queen Elizabeth I's royal chefs made the mistake of cooking the tops of potato plants rather than the tubers, sickening all in attendance.
Even after people figured out that the tubers were the consumable part of the potato plant, there were still those that blamed consumption of potatoes for everything from leprosy to syphilis to promiscuity, as they were considered to be extremely powerful aphrodisiacs.
Another reason acceptance of the potato was slow was its productivity was considered to be somewhat low. The first species of potato that the Spanish brought to Europe originated in low latitudes that had a much warmer climate than the temperate climate in most of Europe. Since they were not adapted to temperate climates, these first potatoes' yields were lower than they would have been in a more favorable climate. Potatoes grown in Southern Europe were shown to produce higher yields.
The reasons are debatable, but over time the potato went from unacceptable dangerous aphrodisiac to a food that government leaders promoted heavily, believing every citizen should grow and consume potatoes. Despite yields that some considered low, potatoes popularity swept across Europe, especially in poor peasant populations.
Some historians have argued that potatoes' popularity had correlation with war and revolution in Europe. Traditional crops like corn and wheat were easily trampled by advancing troops. Since potatoes' yields were below ground, you at least had half a chance of recovering some useable crop after the marching troops departed.
Referring to potatoes as "Irish" potatoes has its origin in events of the late 1840's referred to as the Irish potato famine. A fungal blight caused by Phytophthora infestans destroyed potatoes across Ireland. Estimates range from half to two and a half million deaths directly attributed to the Irish potato famine, out of an original population of nine million. Plus one an a half million people emigrated from Ireland, many moving to the U.S.
Many factors have been attributed to the widespread devastation Ireland experienced during the potato famine. The potatoes grown were not well-adapted to Europe's climate, making them stressed and susceptible to disease. The fungal blight at the root of it all was present in other parts of Europe, but only Ireland was so profoundly affected. Many social and governmental factors have been cited as causes specific to Ireland's plight–far too many and too complicated to address here.
A common reason given for the Irish potato famine was that potatoes were the sole crop, and losing that crop to the blight left the Irish with nothing. As with many things, there is a grain of truth in this statement, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
One of the governmental policies of the time was subdivision, where a family's parcel of land was divided among subsequent generations into increasingly smaller parcels. This continued to the point that potatoes became the only crop the residents had room for that could produce enough to feed them through the winter. Other crops may have been produced, but grown only as part of a rental agreement with the landlords that actually owned the land, not for residents' consumption. This is of course a simple description of a very complex and controversial governmental policy. Add in volatile social and economic issues, and it's hard to find agreement on exactly where the finger of blame should point for the Irish potato famine.
As part of the aftermath of the Irish potato famine, new types of potatoes originating from more temperate parts of South America were brought to Europe. While this didn't eliminate the potential for devastating fungal blight, growing potatoes better adapted to the climate produced healthier plants and reduced the chance of developing disease.
Often we refer to "Irish" potatoes as "white" potatoes, but white is only one of the flesh colors found among potatoes. It's not uncommon to find red, yellow, blue, or purple-fleshed potatoes. Skin color varies widely too, as does skin texture, from thin and smooth to rough and thick.
The edible portion of potato is sometimes mistakenly identified as part of the root. In fact, the potatoes we eat are portions of stem modified for starch storage. The dead giveaway that potatoes are stems is the presence of buds on the potato, commonly referred to as "eyes". Botanically speaking, only stems have buds.
Potatoes are typically planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked, using divisions of the tubers, each containing one or more "eyes". Sometimes these are sold as "seed potatoes" commercially.
Potatoes will produce seed, but it is only utilized as part of breeders' efforts to improve available cultivars. Seed is produced in a fruit that looks like a tomato, a reminder that potato is in the same family.