Potatoes – Solanum tuberosums by Andy and Dave Hamilton

potatoes growing on my allotment - taken by genine blanningPotatoes are a wonderful crop for the first timer and much loved by many vegetable gardeners. If it is your first year on your plot then I recommend growing growing a few plants, the soil gets turned over when you dig them up in preparation for the next crop and they are also relatively easy to grow. Please use the links above to find out what you need to know about growing this staple crop.

Potato History

Potatoes ( Solanum tuberosum ) are native to the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains and have been cultivated in Chile from at least 5000BC. Wild potatoes still grow all over South America and are eaten by the locals who give them the name papas criollas . It is the natural selection and interbreeding of these wild potatoes that gave us the more regular shaped tuber we know today.

Potatoes and Sir Walter Raleigh

It is often believed that Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to introduce the potato to Europe.   It appears however this is only part of the story. Sir Walter never set foot on the North American shores and only instructed, ran and organised various landing parties and colonies. One of these colonies in Virginia (Now North Carolina) fell into difficulties and the survivors had to be rescued by Sir Francis Drake on his return from battling with the Spaniards in the Caribbean.   On the way Drake had stopped in Cartagena (Columbia) to take on supplies including many native South American plants including some potato tubers and tobacco.

potatoes and sir walter raleighThe Raleigh link comes about, as it was his second in command of the settlement Thomas Hariot who had potatoes included with some of the botanical specimens he had found in Virginia.   It was also thought that Hariot planted one of these tuberous specimens in Raleigh’s estate in Ireland.

However other reports also claim that is was the Spanish themselves who introduced the potato directly from Cartagena to Spain.

Slow Introduction into Europe

It took a while after these events for the potato to become established and accepted by the Europeans.   All over Ireland and the UK many Protestants would not plant potatoes, as they had no mention in the Bible. Catholics would grow them, only however, if their seed potatoes were sprinkled with holy water and planted on a Good Friday.

Another account claims that Count Rumford (a famous American scientist and explorer) when in the service of a Bavarian workhouse would have to boil potatoes behind a screen until they were a mush so the inmates would not reject the gruel.

The Potatoes’ Acceptance

In Prussia Frederick the Great sent a load of potatoes to staving peasants in Kolberg who refused to eat them.    Frederick did not accept this and later sent an armed soldier who eventually convinced the people of Kolberg of the potatoes virtues.

A man called Parmentier, after being fed potatoes in a German prison in the Seven Years War, convinced Louis XVI of their delights.   This was to such great effect that Louis convinced his wife to wear potato flowers around his court.

The potatoes’ popularity continued to rise throughout Europe. It became an important crop in wartime as it grew underground it could not be destroyed by pillaging armies.  

In the Second World War in Britain it became an important staple of the British diet as it was easy to grow and very versatile.

Potato Nutrition

Potatoes have long been a staple food in the British and Irish diets and provide 20% of Britain’s vitamin C intake.   They also contain protein, potassium, B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin) and of course have a high percentage of starch.  

Diets and the Potato

It is this starch that has caused the poor old potato’s popularity to suffer recently with the rise of fad diets such as the Atkins and South Beach diets. As potatoes are quite starchy and shunned by Atkins dieters who try to avoid carbohydrates in any form. Also when cooked this starch is readily digested by the body giving a sudden rise in blood glucose and therefore avoided by those on the South Beach diet who aim to eat food with a slow release of glucose, (or low Glycemic Index/Low GI foods).

However this is not to say that people on the South Beach Diet should never eat a potato again.   New potatoes have a moderate Glycemic Index (GI) so those on the South Beach diet (also low GI dieters or Diabetics) can substitute old potatoes for new.   New potatoes are also have a higher level of vitamin C than Old potatoes.

Despite their high glycemic index potatoes are an excellent diet food as they are cheap and easy to prepare and relatively low in calories, a 200g portion will supply just 140 kcal. The idea that much of the potatoes’ goodness is in its skin is partly true. Cooking a potato in its jacket will cause fewer nutrients to leach out than boiling and the skins contain an amount of dietary fibre.   However unless home grown or organic potatoes should be thoroughly washed as agrochemicals can build up in the skins.

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