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NCDA&CS Marketing Division - Irish Potatoes

Potato History

One legend has it that the potato reverently lifted its eye to the crown by Sir Walter Raleigh whose colonists found it in this section of North Carolina. However, the more likely account is that when Cortez and Pizarro conquered Mexico and Peru for their gold and silver, they found the natives eating tubers from which our modern potatoes descended.

They were carried back to Spain and spread to Italy, Holland, and other countries. In 1563, more than 20 years before the attempted colonization at Roanoke Island, the English sea-captain John Hawkins brought the first potato specimen to the British Isles from South America.

Some claim that civilized cultivation of the potato began when a slave trader introduced it in Ireland to avert a famine and by 1688 it had become the staple food of Irish peasantry. The failure of the crop in 1845 caused a famine that started the first great wave of Irish immigration to the United States, and we all know it today as the Irish Potato. In Germany it helped to check the famine caused by the Thirty Years War. Its acceptance met resistance in France and other places, where it was ignorantly said to cause leprosy and many sorts of fever, but the noted agriculturist and economist Parmentier used a ruse to popularize the potato.

He presented Marie Antionette with a tiara of potato blossoms to make it appear that the potato would be restricted to use by the aristocracy. In defiance, the peasants are said to have stolen the royal tubers and raised their own crop. Louis XVI wore flowers of the plant in his button hole to stimulate interest in it, and Frederick the Great of Prussia also championed the potato.

The potato is more universally grown than any other food crop. Our potato is a member of the large and interesting nightshade family, which gives us tobacco as well as foods like tomato, eggplant and red pepper and flowers like the petunia. The poisonous substance found in potato berries and leaves may, if developed in the tubers, cause them to turn green from exposure to light.

The plant stores up nutriment in the fleshy tubers, which are underground stems. Though not common with our cultivated varieties, the small white or purplish flowers under certain conditions may form a soft, green berry full of seed, which is a normal procedure with their wild ancestors in their original habitat.

How Potatoes Grow: From Spud to Spud

The potato is different from many vegetables because it flowers above the ground and fruits below the ground. The plant is not commonly grown from seed but from pieces of the tuber saved from a previous crop. Each piece must have one or two buds, or eyes for a plant to sprout and develop. Tubers grown on farms in Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin, North Dakota, New York and other "seed" producing states are stored in climate controlled warehouses and shipped to North Carolina growers in January and February. All bags of "seed potatoes" must be inspected by government inspectors who screen out infectious diseases such as the devastating late blight fungus.

Potato seed pieces sprout, break through the soil and grow into potato plants that attains lengths of almost 3 feet with pointed leaves and white to purple flowers. The ends of its underground stems, or stolons enlarge to form a few to more than 20 tubers of various shapes and sizes depending on the variety.

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NCDA&CS Markets Division, Joe Sanderson, Director
Mailing Address: 1020 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1020
Physical Address: 2 W. Edenton Street, Room 402, Raleigh NC 27601
Phone: (919) 707-3100; FAX: (919) 733-0999