Potatoes are native to the Andes Mountains
It is hard to believe that the Andes mountain area of Bolivia and Peru could have produced such an important crop. However, that area is the original home of the humble potato, Solanum tuberosum. It was domesticated by the indigenous folk there between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE and is still an important area for the maintaining of genetic diversity even today. The original potatoes don't bear much resemblance to the massive, smooth spuds of today. They were small, often brightly colored, twisted and odd-tasting. The toxic compounds found in the leaves and stems (since they are members of the nightshade family like their cousins, peppers and tomatoes) were often present in the fruits. People dipped their cooked potatoes into clay dust before eating because the clay would bind the toxins and flush them from the body. Clay dust is still sold in many of the local markets even today. Depending on the area and altitude, the many varieties of potatoes there are more genetically diverse on a single farm than all the other potatoes in the world combined. It is amazing to visit local markets where the diversity of their potato crop is on display.
Medicinal properties of potatoes
The potato was also part of the Inca's herbal pharmacy. Pulverized potato was often used on broken bones or to remove warts. They also used various syrups and liquids made from potatoes for an eye wash and to cure cataracts. Potato water was even used as a soak to combat foot odor. There's no medical evidence that any of this works, however they did use the ground fresh potato on skin abrasions and as a drawing poultice for abscesses. There may be some truth to this, since I remember as a child that mom used shredded potato to draw splinters from the skin. They used potato for gastric upsets and there's some truth to that as well, since I've eaten slices of raw potato to combat nausea or heartburn. They treated burns and sunburns with various concoctions containing potatoes and applied sliced potatoes to the forehead to relieve headaches as well.
Potatoes come to Europe
The Spanish brought the potato back to Europe in the 1500's and it took awhile for them to catch on. The suspicious Europeans spread rumors that eating potatoes caused leprosy or plague. Since it was propagated by planting pieces of the tuber instead of seeds, it was met with even more suspicion. However, famine was quite prevalent in most of Europe and all but the wealthiest subsisted on very little food, so it didn't take very long for reluctant acceptance. The introduction of the potato provided hearty fare that filled empty stomachs and the carbohydrates fuel for long days of work. The well-fed population boomed. When Louis XVI took the crown in 1775, he lifted the price control on grain and the Flour Wars began. Bread prices shot up and civil unrest rocked many towns. Urged by potato guru Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, Louis and Marie Antoinette encouraged the court and those below them to eat potatoes instead, even going so far as to wear the potato blossoms on their clothing. Apparently the phrase, "Let the eat cake", was attributed to Marie Antoinette during this time, however it was never confirmed and most likely didn't happen, since the phrase was coined over 100 years before. Still, the introduction of the potato to the menu in Europe resulted in a better-fed peasant class and an increase in population. When the Europeans started to settle North America, the potato journeyed back across the Atlantic with them.
The Potato Famine
When the Potato Famine hit in 1845, there was widespread hunger and starvation because Phytophthora infestans, a fungal or mold-type organism infected the potato crop and killed over three quarters of it for several years. The Irish were the hardest hit and whole families either perished or immigrated to other countries, especially the United States. Europe and Scotland were also hard hit with this disease simply because the potatoes were all many farms grew. This is called a monoculture and the practice puts the crop at higher risk of disease and pests. Ironically, the exportation of other crops, meat and grain to Great Britain continued during this time and the conditions were downplayed or simply ignored by the rulers. We can thank (or curse, depending on your viewpoint) the Potato Famine for the rise of the commercial pesticide business. Companies kept coming up with stronger and more toxic powders or sprays to coat the potato fields and prevent the spread of the mold. It was the first concentrated effort to produce chemical pest controls.
Today, potatoes are an important crop and menu item for most of the world's population. Even Asia and India have embraced the spud and added it to their menus. In fact, China and India lead the world in potato production now. Potatoes are prepared many different ways and the products range from the fast-food and frozen supermarket offerings to potato chips and vodka. Potato starch is even used in the paper and textile industry. It is interesting to note that Monsanto developed a GMO potato that they thought would work well for the fast food industry, however the restaurant chains overwhelmingly refused to use it and the GMO potato was dropped from production in 2001.
Growing potatoes isn't all that hard. Just remember that the ground needs to be prepared well and dug down about eight inches. They can withstand a bit of cool weather and even a light frost, so you can plant them a couple weeks before your last frost is predicted. Prepare your seed potatoes by putting them in a warm spot inside for several days until they start to sprout. Special seed potatoes are best, instead of grocery store potatoes because they have been screened for pests and fungal diseases. You can get seed potatoes at your local garden center, on line and even at big box stores this time of year. When they start to sprout, cut the larger ones into chunks with at least two sprouts per chunk. Let the cut potatoes sit for a couple of days to dry the cut ends. You can coat them in sulfur dust to further prevent fungal disease as well. Just drop the pieces in a bag with the dust and shake. Plant the potato chunks cut side down and cover with about six inches of soil. As the potato plants grow, take a rake and hill the soil around the stems. Do this several times through the season so that the developing potatoes aren't subjected to direct sunlight. Potatoes mature between 75 and 120 days depending on the variety. However, you can tease a few new potatoes from the edges of the hills earlier than that if you are careful. When the plants have withered and turned yellow, carefully dig your potato harvest and store them in a cool, dark area. Direct sunlight or freezing temperatures will spoil them. Always discard any potatoes that have green spots, as these have turned toxic with a compound called solanine, which is caused by exposure to sunlight. A basement or root cellar is ideal. There are so many varieties available to the home gardener now, with a wide range of shape, color and texture, it is a shame to depend on the everyday supermarket offerings.