|History of Potatoes
Origins of the Potato
The potato, from the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world's fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes around 200 B.C.
In 1536 Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavors of the potato, and carried them to Europe. Before the end of the sixteenth century, families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe.
Eventually, agriculturalists in Europe found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats. Most importantly, it became known that potatoes contained most of the vitamins needed for sustenance, and they could be provided to nearly 10 people for each acre of land cultivated.
Potatoes in the United States
Potatoes arrived in the Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown. The first permanent potato patches in North America were established in 1719, most likely near Londonderry (Derry), NH, by Scotch-Irish immigrants. From there, the crop spread across the country.
Idaho, the present-day largest producer of potatoes, actually did not begin growing potatoes until 1836, when missionaries moved west in an effort to teach the native tribes to grow crops instead of relying upon hunting and gathering methods. However, it wasn’t until 1872 when the Russet Burbank variety was developed, that the Idaho potato industry began to flourish.
The Irish Potato Famine
In the 1840s a major outbreak of potato blight, a plant disease, swept through Europe, wiping out the potato crop in many countries. The Irish working class lived largely on potatoes and when the blight reached Ireland, their main staple food disappeared. This famine left many poverty-stricken families with no choice but to struggle to survive or emigrate out of Ireland. Over the course of the famine, almost one million people died from starvation or disease. Another one million people left Ireland, mostly for Canada and the United States.
Following the Irish Potato Famine, most Americans regarded the potato as food for animals rather than for humans, until an effective fungicide against potato blight was found in 1883 by French botanist, Alexander Millardet.