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Potato Varieties and Potato Basic History

Appearing in practically every color in the rainbow, the lowly potato has changed the world for many centuries in ways that most have never imagined. Here in the United States, there are many of people of several heritages, who simply do not know the role that potatoes played in the history of their own ethnicity and country.

But  before we look at that -- Let's take a look at the potato

Many wild varieties of Peru are now in danger of becoming extinct -- yet
at the same time there are thousands of varieties

Many wild varieties of Peru are now in danger of becoming extinct -- yet at the same time there are thousands of varieties

A Brief Primer on Potato History

It is generally accepted that in the wild, the potato plant originated in Peru. Although varieties grew wild throughout the Americas, it was not known as a food source in Europe before 1536.  Additionally, it was not accepted by Americans as a food staple, until after Benjamin Franklin promoted them, after eating them when he was Ambassador to France.

This doesn't mean that cultivated potatoes weren't farmed in the United States before them, just that they were not a popular food. They had been experimented in as a crop since 1719, but were viewed with suspicion by many, as possibly being poison. As a member of the nightshade plant family, this is completely understandable.  Yet, many people, particularly sailors in the Old World, were familiar with the potato. As early as 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh was growing potatoes near Cork, Ireland.

Potatoes are tubers - Art: by Jerilee Wei, 2008 ©

Potatoes are tubers - Art: by Jerilee Wei, 2008©

Potato Varieties

There are literally thousands of varieties of potatoes, with more being discovered each year in the Andes. These plants are herbaceous perennials that die back after flowering.  As a wild plant, and even as a cultivated plant, they have pretty blue, pink, purple, or red flowers that contain yellow stamens. The tubers (potatoes) sort of follow the color of their flower, which I think is an interesting fact, particularly in light of it being little known.

Potatoes require the cooperation of nature, because they need cross-pollination and many insects contribute to this process. However, it is the bumblebee (not the honeybee), that plays the most significant role. There are some varieties of potatoes, however, that are self-pollinating.

Potato eyes

Potato eyes

 How to Grow Potatoes

The potato is a tuber or the swollen part of a stem. Like many other plants, the potato has both above-ground green leafy stems and underground rhizomes. The part of the potato we eat is the swollen portion of the underground stem, or rhizome. We call it a tuber.  

Tubers then, like runners, rhizomes, layers, bulbs, and corms -- are actually stem structures, although most of them grow underground.  They all bear leaves or leaf scars, and they have buds just above the leaves or leaf scars. Stems always have this structure, while roots never have leaves with buds just above them. In the potato, the eyes are the buds. The "eyebrow" is the leaf scar.  

To plant potatoes -- you simply cut up the tubers, making sure that there is an eye on each piece, and allow the pieces to become dry. A plant will grow from each eye.

Common potato

Common potato

"What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow."   A. A. Milne (author of Winnie The Pooh)


"What I say is that, if a cook really knows her heirloom potatoes, she must be a pretty good cook because they are far supeior in taste."  Jerilee Wei

Recommended Heirloom Varieties of Potatoes