A History of the Potato

The humble potato has had a major impact on the history of the world, from preventing scurvy in the Spanish Armada to contributing to the dominance of the Incas in South America to causing massive immigration to the United States.

Origins of the Potato

The Andes mountain range of South America is the birthplace of the white potato that we eat today. The modern species was cultivated over thousands of years by various South American tribes, most notably the Aymara Indians developed over two hundred varieties, and discovered how to effectively grow the potatoes at high elevations (over 10,000 feet) on the Titicaca Plateau.

Nazca and Inca culture placed the potato as a central piece of life, featuring the potato as a central part of their art and pottery. The later Incas even used the growth of the potato plant as their primary unit of time; their time units correlated to how long it took a potato to cook in various consistencies. Potatoes were also used in these cultures to predict the weather and for divining the answers to questions.

Europe is Introduced to the Potato

In 1537, during their periods of conquest of the Central and South American indigenous tribes, the Spanish Conquistadors came across the potato during their conquest of the Incas. Surprised to find such a prolific crop growing so high in elevation, the Spaniards took a large number of samples of the potato to their colonies and began to grow them as food for the masses, for it was considered low class to eat them. This was due primarily to the racist hatred toward the Incas.

By 1570, the potato arrived on the shores of Spain and began to be used for the purpose of feeding the ill and destitute by the king. Potatoes began to be the primary food served in hospitals.

The potato slowly spread throughout Europe, mostly as a botanical curiosity rather than as a food crop. The resistance to the crop was mostly due to ingrained eating habits, the reputation of the crop as food for the poor and destitute, and its apparent botanical relationship to known poisonous plants.

It was in Germany in the 1620s when the potato began to be widely used as a food crop. Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia at the time, ordered his people to plant and eat potatoes as a famine deterrent, which was a major issue at the time. At first, the people rejected this notion since potatoes were viewed as being poisonous, but Frederick decreed that all people resisting this law would have their noses cut off. At several periods throughout the 1600s, the tuber was the primary saving grace to many settlements throughout central Europe, mostly due to the potato's hardiness even in times of famine and drought.

Gradually, the potato was spread widely throughout Europe. Just prior to the French revolution in the 1780s, a French agriculturalist and chemist by the name of Antoine Augustin Parmentier convinced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to try the potato. When the ruling pair liked it, he managed to secure a great deal of funding from the court to promote the potato throughout France. Other nations began to slowly adopt the potato as well.

The Famine

By the 1800s, the potato was an essential part of most European diets, especially in Ireland, where Irish peasants ate an average of ten potatoes a day, providing 80% of their daily calories. Such a massive dependence on a single crop was bound to end in disaster, but the Irish justified it because no other crop had ever been shown to be as dependable.

In the late 1840s, disaster struck. Three successive years (1847 to 1849) of late blight (the microscopic fungus Phytophthora infestans) and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. Without the potatoes that they had become totally dependent on, both the peasants and animals went hungry. At first, the people survived by eating the products of animals and the animals themselves, but eventually the animals were nearly extinct as well. Then the true suffering began. More than one million of Ireland's 8 million inhabitants died of starvation in 1848 to 1850; almost 2 million emigrated, mostly to the United States. To this day, Ireland has never reached the same population peak.

The problem was caused by a lack of genetic diversity in the potato crop; the Irish did not bother to incorporate new strains into their potato crops for hundreds of years, resulting in only a few strains grown prolifically in the country. When the blight struck, there were no available potato strains that were resistant to the blight, and with their dependence on potatoes, it was an unmitigated disaster.

The Redemption of the Potato

At around the same time, the United States began to widely use the potato in their diet as well. Since potatoes could grow most anywhere, virtually every state began to produce significant amounts of potatoes in the 1830s and 1840s. When word of the famine came to America, though, people began to worry greatly about the potential problems of reliance on the potato.

This is when several American scientists stepped in to ensure the potato a long life in America. Luther Burbank, the legendary American horticulturalist, spent the 1850s and 1860s breeding a better potato. Growing twenty-three seedlings from an Early Rose parent (Early Rose being a very common Irish variety), he discovered that one seedling produced two to three times more tubers of better size than any other potato variety he had yet grown. After testing this new variety, Burbank marketed the seedling he called the Burbank to the West Coast states in the late 1800's.

Given this reinvigoration of the potato crop, scientists such as George Washington Carver began to carefully investigate the potato and discovered that countless commercial products could be made from the humble tuber. This led to a huge market for potatoes for non-foodstuff usage.

The new Burbank Russet variety was discovered to be especially adaptable to the climates of Idaho and Washington, so these states quickly became top potato-producing areas. However, one more discovery was needed to make potato production really take off. Production began to decline in the region because the cast-off potatoes (ones not good enough to sell) were being used for seeding future crops. Joe Marshall, an Idaho potato farmer, discovered in 1923 that if one used the best potatoes rather than the throwaways as seed potatoes, then the next crop would be extremely productive. When this technique was widely adopted by the end of the decade, potato production took off and has never looked back.

Today, the potato is a staple of most diets in the world. The hardiness of the plant and the strong production contribute to this adoption, but it also provides a great deal of starch and nutrition and provides the foundation for many meals.