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The Irish Potato
Nature Bulletin No. 170-A   November 21, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The spectacular increase of the Irish potato as a food crop -- 90 percent of it now produced in European countries -- is one of the miracles of agriculture. The population of central Europe tripled in the century after the potato was first accepted there as a food. Irish potatoes saved people from the famines following the Thirty Year's War. And yet, until 1771, over two centuries after they were brought to England from Florida, there is no record that the English used them for anything but feed for cattle and hogs. At one time it was believed that they caused leprosy, fevers and other diseases.

The Spaniards found many varieties under cultivation in South America, carried some to Spain and from Spain back to Florida. In 1719 potatoes again crossed the ocean, to New England, and were grown first in New Hampshire from stock brought from Ireland. Hence the name "Irish potato". The Incan name for potato was "papa". The Irish call them "spuds". The potato blight and crop failure of 1845 started a great wave of Irish immigration to the United States.

Today, in Peruvian markets, there is a bewildering variety of potatoes of every size and shape: some smooth and shiny; others rough and warty; with white, pink, red, orange, yellow, brown, green, purple, or black skins in solid colors or spotted or streaked; with flesh that is white, pink, yellow, gray or lavender; some of them inedible until frozen. Wild relatives of the Irish potato still grow in upland regions from southwestern United States to southern South America, especially Bolivia, Peru and Chile, but never in hot climates. Potatoes can be grown farther north and at higher altitudes than almost any other important food crop.

The plant requires frequent rainfall or irrigation and, although it can be grown in almost any soil, prefers deep rich sandy loams or well- drained alluvial silts. There are many diseases that seriously affect the crop, notably a scab disease common in alkaline soils; and a number of insect pests, especially the Colorado potato beetle unknown until 1855 when potato growing reached to where these insects were native on wild relatives of the Irish potato. Maine, Idaho, Montana and California are our principal potato-growing states. The big Idaho white potatoes are famous for their superior qualities -- especially when baked. Yields of 200 to 300 bushels per acre are common where fertilizers are used, and yields of 900 bushels per acre have been produced. The money value of the world's annual crop far exceeds that of the annual production of gold and silver.

The Irish potato belongs to the nightshade family which also gives us tobacco, foods like tomatoes and peppers and eggplant, drugs like belladonna, and flowers like the petunia. It grows to be from 2 to 4 feet tall and has 5-lobed flowers. The fruit, or "potato ball" -- seldom produced by northern cultivated varieties -- is a round green berry about one-half inch in diameter, containing numerous small seeds. It is said to be poisonous when raw but was cooked and eaten by Indians. The roots may extend to a depth of 3 or 4 feet and nearly as far horizontally.

The potatoes are tubers that develop as fleshy swellings on underground stems called "stolons" -- not on the roots, as does the sweet potato. They contain about 17% starch, 2% protein, 1% minerals, and 80% water, with the protein in a layer next to the skin -- which is why we should eat the skins. Each potato has several "eyes" that are actually leaf scars and buds In some localities they are grown by planting little ones unsuitable for market. Elsewhere, larger "seed" potatoes are cut up in chunks each having at least one eye.

Mrs. Murphy put spuds in her chowder. Who put in papa' s overalls ?

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