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 IRISH POTATO
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
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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Update: June 2012