When you think of the potato, you think of Ireland. There’s a good reason for that. The potato played a very important part in Irish history. More than a hundred years ago the people of Ireland depended upon the potato crop for most of their food. Then, in 1846, the potato blight destroyed that whole year’s crop. More than 600,000 people died of famine!
But the familiar Irish potato did not originate in Ireland. It is a native of the highlands of Ecuador and Peru. Even today it can be found there growing wild. When the Spaniards came to Peru they found the potato and brought it back with them to Spain early in the sixteenth century. From Spain it spread all over Europe and became very popular with the people.
Some people believe that the Spaniards first brought the potato to North America. But there is evidence that it was first brought to New Hampshire from Ireland in 1719.
The potato belongs to the nightshade family, which also includes the tomato and tobacco. The potato itself is a thickened underground stem. The “eyes” of the potato are really undeveloped buds.
But the potato of today is very different from its South American ancestor. The change was brought about by different methods of cultivation. A potato grower is constantly working to get certain qualities.
He wants high yields per hectare, resistance to disease, keeping qualities, vigorous plants, and good’ color and flavor. So he selects for seed only those plants which show these qualities.
The potato is not commonly grown from seed, but from the pieces which have the buds, or eyes. These buds grow into new plants. The plant, which bears white or purplish flowers, grows to a height of from 30 to 90 centimetres. When the plants have withered, it’s a sign that the potatoes may be harvested.
The chief uses of potatoes are as a food, for the manufacture of potato starch, and for the distilling of alcohol.