Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

A Brief History of the Potato

by National Gardening Association Editors

The history of the potato dates back more than 2,000 years, to the time when the Inca Indians of the South American highlands were bringing wild varieties under cultivation.

Potatoes: The Early Years

The early European explorers of South America brought the first potatoes home to Europe, probably between 1530 and 1550, and Ireland became the first country to adopt them wholeheartedly, in part because its cool climate is so well-suited to growing them.

By the 1660s, the potato was firmly established in Ireland, and for the next 250 years the Irish (and people in a few other countries, too) came to depend on it.

In the early 1700s, a colony of Presbyterian Irish who settled in New Hampshire introduced the potato to North America. Potatoes eventually became America's most important vegetable. As in other countries, potatoes became the mainstay of the winter food supply.

The terrible famines in Ireland in the 1840s resulted from the country's dependence on one crop -- the potato -- and in the way the farmland was then distributed.

By the early 1800s, much of the Irish countryside was owned by absentee landlords; the average Irish family had very little farmland. And on what little land they had, many families had to grow grains to pay the rent. This meant they had scant space for growing their own food. As a result, their food supply came to be based entirely on the dependable, nutritional, storable potato.

Late Blight Fungus

Late blight fungus was noticed in the Irish crop as early as the 1820s, but it wasn't a serious problem until 1845. That year the blight wiped out the crop nationwide -- about 900,000 acres altogether. Diseased seed potatoes that were used the following seasons resulted in two more crop failures, and that caused the tragic starvation which claimed nearly half of Ireland's population and sent a million Irish to new homes around the world.

The Irish still grow potatoes, but only about 10 percent of what was grown in the 1800s. Worldwide, however, the potato is still a major crop. We eat plenty of spuds year-round in the United States, and with the wide range of different colored and shaped potatoes now available, there's been a resurgence in home-grown potatoes.

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