Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

The potato, more properly known as the Irish (or white) potato (despite its non-Irish origins) or the Burbank potato (they are both different varieties), is perhaps one of the most nourishing of the world's vegetables. It belongs to the Nightshade (Solanaceae) family. The vegetable is a tuber and is actually the root of the plant. The potato is a cool-season vegetable -- however, it freezes when the temperature drops below 0 degrees Celcius and must be covered whenever there is the threat of frost. Twenty-two degrees seems to be around optimal. The potato is a relatively difficult plant to grow, requiring a certain amount of sunlight, water and fertilizer.

History of the Potato
(Or: Zzzzzzzz...)

The potato is native to the Andean mountains (present day Chile). In the mid 1700's, the potato moved to Ireland, where it became a staple food of the Irish people. As a matter of fact, this is the reason why the white potato is properly known as the Irish potato. Ireland had an ideal climate for growing this supremely reliable crop. The Irish diet depended solely on the potato, with as many as 10 being consumed regularly by the average Irishman. The entire Irish economy and way of life was dependent on the potato. And, as so often happens in history, Fate chose this situation to play one of its most cruel tricks. In the 1840's, the blight (Phytophthora infestans) struck, along with heavy rains that caused the potato tubers to rot. Fully one-eigth of the Irish population died, and 2 million Irishmen immigrated.

Meanwhile, in the US, a man named Luther Burbank had been attempting to improve upon the wildly popular 'Irish potato'. The result was the Burbank potato, a strain that had 2-3 times more yield than the Irish potato, and was bigger, too! Later, a mutation was found in Colorado which gave the potato a rugged skin -- and made it resistant to many disease-causing organisms. This new strain was named the Russet Burbank. The American state of Idaho is famous for this strain of potato. Although Idaho is the best known of the 'American potato states, Washington and Wisconsin are also important centres of potato-growing.

Fun Facts about the Potato
(Or: Everything you didn't know about the potato and still don't)

- George Washington (first president of the US) planted potatoes at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson (another US president) served them at Monticello.
- Potato starch is used to produce paper, glue and lipstick. They're even used in baby diapers! And, most importantly, Vodka is made from Potatoes! (thanks to cbustapeck for pointing this out!) And lastly, El Puerco Loco told me that the alcohol used to power the V2 rocket was distilled from potatoes! Bes you didn't know that!
- The Russians are the world's number one producer of the potato, followed by the Chinese.
- Potato chips were invented in Saratoga, New York when a chef became frustrated with a customer's request for thin potato slices fried in oil. He decided to slice the potatoes super-thin, but to his surprise, the customer liked them!
- The souffle potato was invented when a hotel chef at a French railway station accidentally plunged a potato into oil a second time and the potato puffed up.
- The American soldiers in Belgium named a Belgian potato snack French fries. French fries (les frites) are wildly popular in Belgium (and the Netherlands) and are sold on street corners. They're way bigger than the American ones, too!
- potato is the current stable release of Debian GNU/Linux. - The literal translation of the words meaning 'potato' in the Romance languages (and also Esperanto) is 'apple of the earth'. (Cf. French 'pomme du terre')
- Thanks to the gazelle for this, and edited slightly for accuracy: Sometime between 1800 to 1810, the Ambassador of the supreme Indian government to Iran, Sir John Malcolm, introduced the potato. The Persians called this strange new fruit 'Malcolm's Plums' (atuyi Malkam) and also Sib-i Zir Zamien ('apple of the earth'. Seem familiar?)

And last, but not least...

The Obligatory Potato Science Project

This is a project that seems to be given to every student in primary school. Here it is, from Dr. Coughdrop's Laboratory:

Things You Will Need.
A Potato
Some Potting Soil
A Flower Pot or a Plastic Glass

Put the Potato in a dark cupboard or closet. Check on it once a day until you see the small, white bumps called "eyes".
Once your potato has "eyes", have an adult help you cut them off the potato.
Fill the flower pot half full of potting soil.
Place the piece of potato on the soil with the "eyes" facing up.
Cover the "eyes" with another inch of the potting soil. Add some water.
Keep the potting soil moist, but not too wet.
Watch closely for a few weeks.

What Happened?

What changes did you see? Do you know why it happened? A Potato is a tuber, and it's "eyes" are actually buds. When you planted the "eye", you really planted a potato bud that can grow into a whole new potato plant!

(Or: No, I wasn't born knowing all about potatoes)
- http://www.doctorcoughdrop.com/lab.html -- Dr Coughdrop's Loony Laboratory
- http://www.sunspiced.com/phistory.html -- History of the Potato
- I can't believe it's History!, Katy Keck Arnsteen & Donna Guthrie