Potatoes have a bad rep: Perhaps this stems from their high carbohydrate content, their lumpy appearance, and association with deep fryers. In addition, the potato leaves, flowers, and berries are all toxic to humans. You may have also been told never to eat green potatoes (and never to keep them in sunlight), as toxic glycoalkaloids may attack the nervous system. Despite the ongoing health controversies, potatoes have risen to become the world’s number one non-grain food crop. The skepticism towards potatoes is no new phenomenon. In fact, when potatoes were first introduced to Europe in 1585 by the Spaniards, they were met with disgust and opposition. Europeans were wary to trust this root vegetable and even blamed the potato for leprosy, sexual promiscuity, syphilis, and soil destruction.
However, I am a firm believer in the power of the potato. Nutritionally, their high potassium mineral content, the chemical kukoamine, and fiber content all combine to help lower blood pressure. Potatoes are high in Vitamin B6 vital for a healthy nervous system. Potatoes may reduce inflammation, and purple potato varieties are especially high in antioxidants. Their Vitamin C content helped to prevent scurvy in miners during the Gold Rush. The Incans applied raw potato slices to heal broken bones. Cold potato juice is apparently great as a facewash, while grated potato can ease both sunburn and frostbite.
Apparently I’m not the only one: In 1785, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French Botanist crafted a potato-only feast for King Louis XIV, who then schemed up ways to turn the French public into potato believers as well. Louis grew 100 acres of potato and carefully guarding these potatoes, making them seem very desirable. Marie Antoinette even sparked a trend by decorating her hair with potato flowers.
Potatoes are part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, alongside species such as tomato, goji berries, eggplant, peppers, petunias, (including spices such as chilli peppers, cayenne pepper) and tobacco. Potatoes prefer moist, nutrient rich soil, but can grow anywhere in adequate soil, even the subarctic and arctic regions of Canada. Potatoes reproduce vegetatively by sprouting from directly from the tuber. These tubers store nutrients, helping the potato to be a hardy and resilient to colder winter temperatures.
S. tuberosum is indigenous to South America, coastal Chile and in the Andes Mountain Ranges (modern day Southern Peru and Nortwestern Bolivia). There are now thousands of species, which may be broken down to subspecies of cultivated potatoes: S. tuberosum, which is cultivated widely in North America and Europe, and S. andigena, whose cultivation only remains in Central and South America. S. andigenabecame a staple food crop in many European countries for its nutrient density. In the 1840s, however, a late blight disease arrived from North America to Ireland, in a devastating period known as the Great Irish Potato Famine. The water mold, Phytophthora infestans attacks the tubers and leaves. For this reason, S. tuberosum rose to become most easily farmed as the modern common potato.
Potatoes also produce “berries”, each of which holds hundreds of tiny seeds. These seeds may be saved to produce new varieties of potatoes, which are genetically closer to their Andean ancestor varieties. These True Potato Seed (TPS) varieties, such as the Dude Boyd, promotes genetic diversity and disease resistance in potato crop. The International Potato Society, based out of Peru, is busy preserving 7000 potato varieties in their seed bank. The Makah Ozette is a unique variety that first came to Neah Bay in Northern Washington by Spaniards in the 1700s; straight to North America from Andean origin, rather than through Europe first. The Makah Tribe grew the Ozette potato as a staple crop for 200 years, and although hard to come by, the Ozette potato has continued to be cultivated on the small-scale in the Pacific Northwest—even in a few backyard gardens in Victoria, BC.
Potatoes are a food of the past, but also food of the future. In 1995, NASA and University of Wisconsin, Madison successfully cultivated a potato in space, and they may be able to cultivate them on Mars. Beyond human consumption, potatoes are used for ethanol fuel, animal feed, the colorless, odorless potato starch is a popular binding agent in processed foods. The starch may be formed into a 100% biodegradable substitute for plastic.
- Carve stamps out of halved potatoes
- Time measurement: How long it takes to boil a potato
- Rub raw potato on inside of ski goggles to keep them from fogging up
- Use raw potato to shine your shoes
- Craft a cold compress or a hold compress by boiling or refrigerating a potato
The possibilities are truly endless with this super tuber.
By: Julia Comerford
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