The record of the potato’s exact place of origin and how it came to the Mediterranean is scanty.
The latest evidence for its origin points in several directions: to the Chiloé region of Chile, to southern Peru, and to Bolivia-northern Argentina.
In any case it seems that the first potato to reach Europe arrived in Spain and must have come from Peru and transhiped through Cartagena in Columbia in the mid-sixteenth century.
The potato was domesticated in the High Andes as early as seven to ten thousand years ago and was widely cultivated by Inca times.
Because wild potato tubers taste bitter and contain toxic amounts of alkaloids, the earliest intensive cultivation of the plant in prehistoric times must have been to recognize and select plants that were less bitter and less toxic.
It is not known when this happened but somewhere between 2000 and 5000 B.C., concurrent with the domestication of the llama, seems likely.
The potatoes originally introduced to Europe were quite knobby and unlike the smooth ovals we see today that is a result of cultivators working towards that end.
It was also at least a hundred years after its arrival before the potato came to be accepted in any way as a food in the Mediterranean.
The commonly accepted story of the discovery of the potato by Europeans tells of its being found in 1537 or 1538 by the Spanish Conquistador and historian, Pedro de Cieza de León, in the Cauca Valley of Colombia and introduced as a curiosity to Europe by 1573.
Pedro de Cieza de León wrote about the potato in his Chronicles of Peru published in 1540.
The great French botanist Carolus Clusius went to Spain in 1564 with the express purpose of describing rare plants to be found there.
He published his results in 1576 and never mentioned the potato.
It seems that so attentive and careful a scholar as Clusius, the greatest botanist of his day, would not have overlooked the potato had it been growing in Spain, although it may have been in much localized areas.
There is evidence that Clusius received two tubers and a fruit in 1588 from Philippe de Sivry of Belgium and is credited with introducing the potato to Germany and France.
We have definite proof of the potato being eaten at the Sangre hospital in Seville in 1573, so it must have reached Spain from the New World in 1569-70.
It has been assumed that the potato continued its journey north from Spain into France and the rest of northern Europe. In fact, it seems the potato entered Europe in two places, one being Spain.
But it may very well have come to France from the other direction, from England. As with the Spanish potato, the French potato also begins its journey in South America. It went first to Virginia, a result of Indian trading, and then to England after the first permanent English colonies was established there in the early seventeenth century. English botanists of the time thought the potato was native to Virginia. The potato then traveled to the continent, first to Belgium, then northern France and to Switzerland. The celebrated French agriculturalist Olivier de Serres devotes a chapter to the potato in his Théâtre d’agriculture st mesnage des champs, published in 1600 and tells us that the potato came to France from Switzerland, arriving first in the Dauphiné and then traveling south to his native Languedoc.
Three tubers, the potato, the sweet potato, and the sunchoke all entered Europe from the New World about the same time, but it was the potato that became the dominant food. It probably won this race because it was easier to digest and its taste was bland enough to allow for greater uses in a household economy. Most importantly, it was the starch in potatoes--its caloric value--which made it as attractive as a food. The potato was only grown in small gardens in Spain in the last part of the sixteenth century, but by the seventeenth century we see the potato more and more in the cuisines of Spain and Naples, then a dominion of the Spanish Bourbons. The introduction of the potato and its widespread cultivation helped reduce famines in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Isn’t it ironic that the conquistadors of Spain, who first brought the potato to the attention of those outside the Americas, were relatively indifferent to the vegetative gold that they stumbled upon in the 1530s?
They rode over the tubers, in pursuit of the Inca leader Atahualpa and his fabled riches.
Little did they realise that, once introduced into Europe, the potato would begin more than four centuries of conquest.
The ancient empires of South America have long since vanished. Europe’s imperial glory is only a distant memory. But the potato continues to thrive in Ireland and the world as a whole, expanding its consumption empire by the day. Despite the important role the potato was later to play in Irish history, we still don’t know how the potato reached our shores. Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been credited with introducing the potato into Europe. Indeed, the early history of the potato is obscured by often contradictory stories, many of which can be relegated to the sphere of romance. So who did bring the potato to Ireland and when?
It has been argued that the first potatoes brought to Europe came from Chile (subspecies tuberosum), because they had been adapted to form tubers in the long summer days of southern temperate latitudes and would feel at home in Europe where the day length was similar. In contrast, the potato found in Peru and Colombia (subspecies andigena) is adapted to the shorter days of tropical latitudes and does not tuberise in Europe until very late in the season when the natural day length has shortened to more or less twelve hours in late September and early October. Redcliffe Salaman writing in the 1940s was adamant that the length of time needed to transport potatoes to Spain from Chile would have resulted in the death of any tubers. The first journey from Chile to Europe via the Straits of Magellan was not made until 1579, when the potato was already known in Europe. It was therefore, he argued, the less favourable andigena that was brought to Europe from Colombia. Therein lies the dilemma, since it is not andigena that we see every day on our dinner tables, but tuberosum. So how did this happen?
The first European potatoes were it seems antigena from Colombia (for most of Europe at least). They could only tuberise in the shorter days of the European autumn, and grow in milder regions of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc.. We know this from the evidence provided by contemporary botanists. The Frenchman Charles d’Écluse, or Clusius (1526-1609), a central figure in the spread of the potato in Europe, in 1601 describes a plant with stems up to 7.5 feet (2.28m) and 10.5 feet (3.2m) long, while also noting that the plants were harvested in November. Swiss physician, anatomist and botanist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624), writing in 1620, also mentions that the potato was harvested in November and his potato drawings are similar to the species andigena.
The sweet potato (ipomoea batatas) which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato in contrast was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato was introduced into Spain almost immediately after the earliest voyages. King Henry VIII, son-in-law of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, was particularly fond of them believing they possessed aphrodisiac qualities, which could provide him with that all-elusive heir. The ‘venerous roots’, imported from Spain, were a popular feature of many English banquets during the sixteenth century. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Sir John Falstaff, thinking he is about to bed two women, cries ‘Let the sky rain potatoes’, he is more than likely referring to sweet potatoes. The sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, as it could only be grown in the climate of Spain. It therefore proved to be rare and expensive in the rest of Europe. John Hawkins (1532-1595), English naval administrator, commander and expert seaman also took aboard ‘hennes potatoes and pines’ at Santa Fé in Venezuela during 1564, but again given the location these must have been sweet potatoes.
Columbus and his men never saw a tuber of solanum tuberosum, nor did the conquistador Hernán Cortéz (1485-1547) encounter the plant in Mexico. The evidence available points to two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. The Hospital de la Sangre in Seville was buying potatoes as part of their housekeeping as early as 1573. This implies that potatoes were being grown in Spain for a number of years in order to build up stocks. Clusius had visited Spain in 1564 and studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, but he does not mention the potato. The potato must therefore have been introduced to Spain between 1565 and 1570.
It is not until the early 1590s that we hear of the potato in England. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was indebted to Clusius for information regarding the potato. Gerard was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from different parts of the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. Published in 1597, his celebrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, containing more than 1,000 species, became the first plant catalogue, and the first to incorporate a picture of the potato. It was immensely popular, providing more than 800 chapters of information on species as they were then understood. It also contained a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard added the term ‘bastard potatoes’ to distinguish the potato from the sweet potato, and added that he had received potatoes from their natural home, Virginia. He refers to the Indian name of the potato, which he incorrectly spelt ‘papus’. However, the name papas, was its vernacular not in Virginia, but in its original habitat in the South American Andes. Gerard’s statement in the Herball, that the potato had come from Virginia is erroneous. Although wild potatoes are found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century, and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s when introduced by settlers from Ulster. The potato could not therefore have been growing in Virginia as Gerard states.
The president of the Royal Society, Sir Robert Southwell (1635-1702) was recorded in the minutes of a meeting of 13 December, 1693 as stating that his grandfather had ‘brought potatoes into Ireland who had them from Sir Walter Rawleigh after his return from Virginia’. Sir Robert’s grandfather was Anthony Southwell (1579-1623), who with his brother Sir Thomas came to Munster in some official capacity in the reign of James I. Sir Robert’s grandfather and great-uncle were the sons of Richard Southwell of Spixworth in Norfolk and his wife Alice Cornwallis. They are recorded as holding land in Cork prior to 1609. However, Robert Southwell’s statement is rather dubious to say the least. If Ralegh was in a position to distribute potatoes at an early date, he must surely have got these potatoes from England, since he was never in Virginia and as already mentioned, Solanum tuberosum is not native to Virginia.
The confusion may arise due to Ralegh’s association with a number of voyages to North America. Under royal patent granted by Elizabeth I in 1584 to Ralegh, a group of colonists left for North America in April of that year, to map out a route and prepare the way for the main party, which was to follow. A second contingent of colonists was sent to North America, departing on 9 April 1585. In August 1585 the colonists arrived in what is now eastern North Carolina, in Dare County, in Croatan Sound. However, the first venture failed and the colonists returned to England in July 1586 with Sir Francis Drake who was returning after privateering in the West Indies. Further voyages were made in 1587 and 1590, but no subsequent attempt at colonising was made until 1606. In 1590 a voyage took place from England to the Americas which was partly financed by Ralegh. These ships brought back various Spanish ‘prize ships’ and also called at Virginia on the return to England. It is tempting to believe that potatoes came from these Spanish ships which had fallen into English hands. However, there is not a shred of evidence to support such an assumption. Ralegh gave up his patent in March 1590, having never set foot in Virginia. No mention whatsoever was made of potatoes on their return. So why then is Virginia associated with the introduction of the potato into Britain and Ireland?
Ralegh had sent his friend and colleague, English mathematician and astronomer, Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), as a scientific adviser for the expedition of 1585-86. On his return to England in 1588, Harriot published A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. He mentions a stringy tuberous plant called the ‘openawk’, with which the potato has often been confused right up until the nineteenth century, hence the association of the potato with both Virginia and Ralegh. Ralegh evidently saw potatoes off the coast of Venezuela but these were undoubtedly sweet potatoes: Ralegh never went near any area where he might have found solanum tuberosum. He tried to visit Virginia on his return from his disastrous venture in Guyana in 1595, but failed. That Ralegh planted potatoes at his Myrtle Grove estate at Youghal, County Cork is probably more myth than fact.
Of course the potato was known and its cultivation well understood in Munster at a very early date. Although Ralegh was mayor of Youghal in 1588-89, he didn’t spend much time in the country. As to Ralegh’s voyages, only one touched the coast of Ireland on the return journey, and that at Smerwick, County Kerry, with the crew half-starved. The Ralegh legend although dating to Southwell in 1693, was made popular by Dr Wright of Edinburgh, who credits Ralegh with the introduction in a letter he wrote to the English Board of Agriculture in 1795.
Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), unlike Ralegh, actually came into contact with solanum tuberosum in the Americas. Drake returned to Plymouth in August 1573 after several successful ventures against the Spanish, but had to put to sea again as the friends of Spain were just then in the ascendant at Elizabeth’s court. It is rather unlikely that Drake seized potatoes from the Spanish when there was more valuable cargo to be had, but the period after his return from South America in the autumn of 1573 is an obscure one in his life. While he did serve under the Earl of Essex in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, he does not emerge into the clear light of history until two years later.
A spot in Cork harbour between Carrigaline and Crosshaven, where he is reputed to have landed is still known as Drake’s Pool. It seems improbable that the potato was introduced around this time as it had only just been introduced to Spain, whose conquistadors had known of its existence for more than a quarter century, and at a time when it was not yet known in England.
That Drake did later come into contact with the potato is undisputed. It is recorded in The World Encompassed (1628), that Drake obtained potatoes by barter from the Indians of the Islands of Mocha, off the coast of Chile in November 1578: ‘we being on land, the people came down to us to the water side with shew of great curtesie, bringing to us potatos, rootes and two very fat sheepe’. Drake did not return to Europe until 26 September, 1580, nearly two years later. It has since been proven by W.G. Burton in the 1980s, contrary to Salaman, that potatoes given only the slightest of care will sprout little tubers and survive in the most inhospitable of environments. Such tubers could well have been introduced as curiosities by Drake or one of his crew. Having completed his renowned second circumnavigation of the globe in November 1580, he was honoured by a visit from Queen Elizabeth I, who dined with him on board his ship, the Golden Hind (formerly the Pelican), which was lying at Deptford in the Thames estuary, but there is no record of potatoes appearing on the menu. Clusius visited Drake in 1581 and published articles the following year on some of Drake’s plants, but again there is no mention of the potato. Ironically, given Ralegh’s association with the potato down through the centuries, it was to Drake and not to him that a monument was dedicated in Offenburg, Germany, with the inscription: ‘Sir Francis Drake, introducer of the potato into Europe, in the year of our Lord 1580’.
If potatoes came from Virginia in 1586 they must already have been on Sir Francis Drakes’ ships and he may have acquired them from the sack of Cartagena on the coast of modern day Colombia. In 1585 Drake had been in command of twenty-five ships. Hostilities with Spain had broken out once more, and he was ordered to cause as much damage as possible to the Spanish overseas empire. Drake fulfilled his commission, capturing Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands and taking and plundering the cities of Cartagena, St Augustine in Florida, and San Domingo in Hispaniola. Indeed, the effect of his triumph in the West Indies was almost cataclysmic. Spanish credit, both moral and material, almost foundered under the losses. Potatoes may well have formed part of the valuable haul taken from Cartagena itself or from the cargoes of plundered ships. Drake left Cartagena on 30 March 1585, after picking up the colonists from the failed Roanoke settlement in Virginia, he arrived in Plymouth on 26 July 1586. These potatoes could in all likelihood have been confused with the plants from Virginia brought back by Harriot. Certainly this would reconcile a number of statements, although we can only speculate whether this actually happened.
Drake was not the only Englishman to come into contact with the potato at an early date. On 16 March, 1587, Thomas Cavendish (1560-1592) English navigator and leader of the third circumnavigation of the globe, stopping at St Mary Island, near Concepción, southern Chile, found ‘cades of straw filled with potato rootes, which were very good to eat, ready made up in the storehouses for the Spaniards, against they should come for their tribute’. Clearly the Spanish had come to recognise the value of such a commodity. Here Cavendish and his crew took aboard supplies and ‘a number of bagges of potato rootes’. Ever since passing through the Straits of Magellan, Cavendish had attacked Spanish settlements and shipping from the Chilean coast up to Mexico. Among his prizes was the treasure galleon Santa Ann seized off California in November 1587. Cavendish like Drake returned to England around Cape Horn, and arrived in Plymouth on 9-10 September 1588, with only one of his ships, the Desire, and much plunder. Certainly Cavendish had ample opportunities to lay his hands on potatoes during his expedition, but whether he did actually bring back tubers among the proceeds of his exploits will probably never be known.
Whatever about Cavendish bringing potatoes to England, we can be quite certain that he was not responsible for introducing the potato to mainland Europe, since more than eight months before, on 26 January 1588, Clusius had received from the Prefect of Mons, two potato tubers which he duly planted.
So when and how did the potato get to Ireland? Rather than looking to England and her naval heroes, we should instead look to Spain. The potato was often referred to as An Spáinneach or An Spáinneach Geal [the white, or kind hearted Spaniard] in its early history. This would suggest a point of origin in Spain itself, or that a Spaniard was responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland. Overseas exchanges with Spain and France involving the export of hides and fish, and imports of wine and cloth were quite substantial. The introduction of the tuber as a curiosity from Spain through Waterford, seems highly plausible. However, given the lack of historical evidence it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of an introduction from England. Salaman has suggested that the potato was introduced in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Certainly this date would allow for the potato’s introduction, albeit unlikely by Drake or someone connected with Ralegh. As for an introduction by Ralegh himself, it is a myth, which is still quoted by historians to this day. Although there may be more substance to the suggestion of an introduction by Drake, there is simply no proof. Given the fact that the Spanish were the first Europeans to encounter the potato in the New World, and the first to cultivate it on the European mainland, it should come as no surprise if the Spanish were responsible for bringing the first tubers to our shores. Given that the potato thrived in Ireland from a very early date (but not in Europe), it was probably solanum tuberosum rather than andigena that was introduced. Certainly 1586 would seem to be the earliest feasible date for introduction to Ireland, and 1600 the latest, since the potato was already being grown in John Gerard’s London garden in 1596. Therefore, the appearance of the strange new tuber in Ireland couldn’t have been long delayed.
The history of the potato has its roots in the windswept Andes Mountains of South America. It is an austere region plagued by fluctuating temperatures and poor soil conditions. Yet the tough and durable potato evolved in its thin air (elevations up to 15,000 feet), climbing ever higher like the people who first settled the region.
The tough pre-Columbian farmers first discovered and cultivated the potato some 7,000 years ago. They were impressed by its ruggedness, storage quality and its nutritional value. Western man did not come in contact with the potato until as late as 1537 when the Conquistadors tramped through Peru. And it was even later, about 1570, that the first potato made its way across the Atlantic to make a start on the continent of Europe.
Though the tuber was productive and hardy, the Spanish put it to very limited use. In the Spanish Colonies potatoes were considered food for the underclasses; when brought to the Old World they would be used primarily to feed hospital inmates.
It would take three decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe. Even so the potato was cultivated primarily as a curiosity by amateur botanists. Resistance was due to ingrained eating habits, the tuber's reputation as a food for the underpriveleged and perhaps most importantly its relationship to poisonous plants.
The potato is a member of the nightshade family and its leaves are, indeed, poisonous. A potato left too long in the light will begin to turn green. The green skin contains a substance called solanine which can cause the potato to taste bitter and even cause illness in humans. Such drawbacks were understood in Europe, but the advantages, generally, were not.
Europe would wait until the 1780's before the potato gained prominence anywhere. About 1780 the people of Ireland adopted the rugged food crop. The primary reason for its acceptance in Ireland was its ability to produce abundant, nutritious food. Unlike any other major crop, potatoes contain most of the vitamins needed for sustenance. Perhaps more importantly, potatoes can provide this sustenance to nearly 10 people on an acre of land. This would be one of the prime factors causing a population explosion in the early 1800s. Of course, by the mid-1800's the Irish would become so dependent upon this crop that its failure would provoke a famine.
While in Ireland the potato gained acceptance from the bottom up, in France the potato was imposed upon society by an intellectual. Antoine Augustine Parmentier saw that the nutritional benefits of the crop combined with its productive capacity could be a boon to the French farmer. He was a pharmacist, chemist and employee of Louis XV. Parmentier discovered the benefits of the potato while held prisoner by the Prussians during the Seven Years War. He was so enamored by the potato that he determined that it should become a staple of the French diet. After failing by conventional means to convince Frenchmen of its advantages, he determined upon a surreptitious means of making his point.
Parmentier acquired a miserable and unproductive spot of ground on the outskirts of Paris. There, he planted 50 acres of potatoes. During the day, he set a guard over it. This drew considerable attention in the neighborhood. In the evening the guard was relaxed and the locals came to see what all the fuss was about. Believing this plant must be valuable, many peasants "acquired" some of the potatoes from the plot, and soon were growing the root in their own garden plots. Their resistance was overcome by their curiosity and desire to better their lot with the obviously valuable new produce.
Soon the potato would gain wide acceptance across Europe and eventually make its way back over the Atlantic to North America. As time passed, the potato would become one of the major food stuffs of the world. But not without a few bumps in the road. The 1840's saw disastrous potato blight. This terrible disease was caused by a fungus known as Phytophthora infestans. With the devastation of potato crops throughout Europe came the destruction and dislocation of many of the populations that had become dependent upon it. The Potato Famine in Ireland would cut the population by half (through both starvation and emigration). An effective fungicide was not found until 1883 by the French botanist, Alexandre Millardet.
Today, the potato is so common, plentiful and pervasive in the Western diet that it is taken for granted. We forget that it has only been with us for a few hundred years. For a new appreciation of the potato,
When potato plants bloom, they send up five-lobed flowers that spangle fields like fat purple stars. By some accounts, Marie Antoinette liked the blossoms so much that she put them in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole, inspiring a brief vogue in which the French aristocracy swanned around with potato plants on their clothes. The flowers were part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to eat this strange new species
DURING HIS SCIENTIFIC expedition to Patagonia aboard HMS Beagle, British naturalist Charles Darwin became fascinated by a surprisingly adaptable South American plant. In his log, Darwin wrote: "It is remarkable that the same plant should be found on the sterile mountains of Central Chile, where a drop of rain does not fall for more than six months, and within the damp forests of the southern islands."
The plant Darwin observed was the potato. The tuber was remarkable for both its adaptability and its nutritional value. As well as providing starch, an essential component of the diet, potatoes are rich in vitamin C, high in potassium and an excellent source of fiber. In fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. The easily-grown plant has the ability to provide more nutritious food faster on less land than any other food crop, and in almost any habitat.
The Origin of the Potato
The potato was first cultivated in South America between three and seven thousand years ago, though scientists believe they may have grown wild in the region as long as 13,000 years ago. The genetic patterns of potato distribution indicate that the potato probably originated in the mountainous west-central region of the continent. According to Dr. Hector Flores, "the most probable place of origin of potatoes is located between the south of Peru and the northeast of Bolivia. The archaeological remains date from 400bc and have been found on the shores of Lake Titicaca.... There are many expressions of the extended use of the potato in the pre-Inca cultures from the Peruvian Andes, as you can see in the Nazca and Chimu pottery." The crop diffused from Peru to the rest of the Andes and beyond.
Early Spanish chroniclers — who misused the Indian word batata (sweet potato) as the name for the potato — noted the importance of the tuber to the Incan Empire. The Incas had learned to preserve the potato for storage by dehydrating and mashing potatoes into a substance called chuñu. Chuñu could be stored in a room for up to 10 years, providing excellent insurance against possible crop failures. As well as using the food as a staple crop, the Incas thought potatoes made childbirth easier and used it to treat injuries.
The Potato's Introduction
The Spanish conquistadors first encountered the potato when they arrived in Peru in 1532 in search of gold, and noted Inca miners eating chuñu. At the time the Spaniards failed to realize that the potato represented a far more important treasure than either silver or gold, but they did gradually begin to use potatoes as basic rations aboard their ships. After the arrival of the potato in Spain in 1570, a few Spanish farmers began to cultivate them on a small scale, mostly as food for livestock.
From Spain, potatoes slowly spread to Italy and other European countries during the late 1500s. By 1600, the potato had entered Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, Portugal and Ireland. But it did not receive a warm welcome.
Throughout Europe, potatoes were regarded with suspicion, distaste and fear. Generally considered to be unfit for human consumption, they were used only as animal fodder and sustenance for the starving. In northern Europe, potatoes were primarily grown in botanical gardens as an exotic novelty. Even peasants refused to eat from a plant that produced ugly, misshapen tubers and that had come from a heathen civilization. Some felt that the potato plant's resemblance to plants in the nightshade family hinted that it was the creation of witches or devils.
Let Them Eat Potatoes
In most of Europe, the upper classes saw the potato's potential before the more superstitious lower classes, and the encouragement to begin growing potatoes had to come from above.
In meat-loving England, farmers and urban workers regarded potatoes with extreme distaste. In 1662, the Royal Society recommended the cultivation of the tuber to the English government and the nation, but this recommendation had little impact. Potatoes did not become a staple until, during the food shortages associated with the Revolutionary Wars, the English government began to officially encourage potato cultivation. In 1795, the Board of Agriculture issued a pamphlet entitled "Hints Respecting the Culture and Use of Potatoes"; this was followed shortly by pro-potato editorials and potato recipes in The Times. Gradually, the lower classes began to follow the lead of the upper classes.
A similar pattern emerged across the English Channel in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. While the potato slowly gained ground in eastern France (where it was often the only crop remaining after marauding soldiers plundered wheat fields and vineyards), it did not achieve widespread acceptance until the late 1700s. The peasants remained suspicious, in spite of a 1771 paper from the Faculté de Paris testifying that the potato was not harmful but beneficial. The people began to overcome their distaste when the plant received the royal seal of approval: Louis XVI began to sport a potato flower in his buttonhole, and Marie-Antoinette wore the purple potato blossom in her hair.
Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato's potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but faced the challenge of overcoming the people's prejudice against the plant. When he issued a 1774 order for his subjects to grow potatoes as protection against famine, the town of Kolberg replied: "The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?" Trying a less direct approach to encour
Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato's potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but faced the challenge of overcoming the people's prejudice against the plant. When he issued a 1774 order for his subjects to grow potatoes as protection against famine, the town of Kolberg replied: "The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?" Trying a less direct approach to encourage his subjects to begin planting potatoes, Frederick used a bit of reverse psychology: he planted a royal field of potato plants and stationed a heavy guard to protect this field from thieves. Nearby peasants naturally assumed that anything worth guarding was worth stealing, and so snuck into the field and snatched the plants for their home gardens. Of course, this was entirely in line with Frederick's wishes.
In the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to begin cultivating the tuber, but many ignored this order. They were supported in this dissension by the Orthodox Church, which argued that potatoes were suspect because they were not mentioned in the Bible. Potatoes were not widely cultivated in Russia until 1850, when Czar Nicholas I began to enforce Catherine's order.
Across the Atlantic, the tuber was first introduced to the colonies in the 1620s when the British governor of the Bahamas sent a gift box of Solanum tuberosum to the governor of the colony of Virginia. While they spread throughout the northern colonies in limited quantities, potatoes did not become widely accepted until they received an aristocratic seal of approval from Thomas Jefferson, who served them to guests at the White House. Thereafter, the potato steadily gained in popularity, this popularity being strengthened by a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the new nation.
Potato Population Boom
When the European diet expanded to include potatoes, not only were farmers able to produce much more food, they also gained protection against the catastrophe of a grain crop failure and periodic population checks caused by famine. Highly nutritious potatoes also helped mitigate the effects of such diseases as scurvy, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery. The higher birth rates and lower mortality rates potatoes encouraged led to a tremendous population explosion wherever the potato traveled, particularly in Europe, the US and the British Empire.
Historians debate whether the potato was primarily a cause or an effect of the huge population boom in industrial-era England and Wales. Prior to 1800, the English diet had consisted primarily of meat, supplemented by bread, butter and cheese. Few vegetables were consumed, most vegetables being regarded as nutritionally worthless and potentially harmful. This view began to change gradually in the late 1700s. At the same time as the populations of London, Liverpool and Manchester were rapidly increasing, the potato was enjoying unprecedented popularity among farmers and urban workers. The Industrial Revolution was drawing an ever increasing percentage of the populace into crowded cities, where only the richest could afford homes with ovens or coal storage rooms, and people were working 12-16 hour days which left them with little time or energy to prepare food. High yielding, easily prepared potato crops were the obvious solution to England's food problems. Not insignificantly, the English were also rapidly acquiring a taste for potatoes, as is evidenced by the tuber's increasing popularity in recipe books from the time. Hot potato vendors and merchants selling fish and chips wrapped in paper horns became ubiquitous features of city life. Between 1801 and 1851, England and Wales experienced an unprecedented population explosion, their combined population doubling to almost 18 million.
Before the widespread adoption of the potato, France managed to produce just enough grain to feed itself each year, provided nothing went wrong, but something usually did. The precariousness of the food supply discouraged French farmers from experimenting with new crops or new farming techniques, as they couldn't afford any failures. On top of hundreds of local famines, there were at least 40 outbreaks of serious, nationwide famine between 1500 and 1800. The benefits of the potato, which yielded more food per acre than wheat and allowed farmers to cultivate a greater variety of crops for greater insurance against crop failure, were obvious wherever it was adopted. The potato insinuated itself into the French diet in the form of soups, boiled potatoes and pommes-frites. The fairly sudden shift towards potato cultivation in the early years of the French Revolution allowed a nation that had traditionally hovered on the brink of starvation in times of stability and peace to expand its population during a decades-long period of constant political upheaval and warfare. The uncertainly of food supply during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, combined with the tendency of above-ground crops to be destroyed by soldiers, encouraged France's allies and enemies to embrace the tuber as well; by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the potato had become a staple food in the diets of most Europeans.
The most dramatic example of the potato's potential to alter population patterns occurred in Ireland, where the potato had become a staple by 1800. The Irish population doubled to eight million between 1780 and 1841 — this, without any significant expansion of industry or reform of agricultural techniques beyond the widespread cultivation of the potato. Though Irish landholding practices were primitive in comparison with those of England, the potato's high yields allowed even the poorest farmers to produce more healthy food than they needed with scarcely any investment or hard labor. Even children could easily plant, harvest and cook potatoes, which of course required no threshing, curing or grinding. The abundance provided by potatoes greatly decreased infant mortality and encouraged early marriage. Accounts of Irish society recorded by contemporary visitors paint the picture of a people as remarkable for their health as for their lack of sophistication at the dinner table, where potatoes typically supplied appetizer, dinner and dessert.
The Irish Potato Famine
Whereas most of their neighbors regarded the potato with suspicion and had to be persuaded to use it by the upper classes, the Irish peasantry embraced the tuber more passionately than anyone since the Incas. The potato was well suited to the Irish the soil and climate, and its high yield suited the most important concern of most Irish farmers: to feed their families.
While the potato was rapidly becoming an important food across Europe, in Ireland it was frequently the only food. Many Irish survived on milk and potatoes alone — the two together provide all essential nutrients — while others subsisted on potatoes and water. By the early 1840s, almost one-half of the Irish population had become entirely dependent upon the potato, specifically on just one or two high-yielding varieties.
The Polish King John III Sobieski is credited with having introduced potatoes - known initially as amerykany (from "America") - to his countrymen in the mid-1600s, after a visit to Vienna. Thus began a love affair that was to make Poland one of the 20th century's giants of potato production.
By 1970, the country was harvesting more than 50 million tonnes of potatoes a year, a quantity bettered at the time only by the Soviet Union.
Today, Poland still ranks in the top 10 of world producers. However, harvests have declined in recent years, slipping from 36 million tonnes in 1990 to 24.2 million tonnes in 2000, then plummeting to a record low of less than 9 million tonnes in 2006. The 2007 harvest, of almost 11.8 million tonnes was a welcome "return to form" for Polish production.
Nevertheless, ziemniaki remain at the heart of Polish agriculture, grown by an estimated 2.2 million farmers using 10 percent of the total area for field crops. By recent estimates, almost half of the potato crop is used as farm animal feed, while 25 percent goes to human consumption, which was around 130 kg per capita in 2005. (Source: International Year of the Potato)