It’s been potato mania on my homestead lately. I’ve been buying a lot of potatoes the past two weeks because I’ve been getting some decent deals, so there have been quite a few meals with potatoes on the plate. I’ve had dozens of seed potatoes growing eyes in paper bags in my kitchen – potatoes I’ll be planting this weekend. With all these potatoes on my mind — and because it’s potato planting season in Zone 8 – I thought this was a good time to Spotlight potatoes.
The “Irish potato” (as differentiated from the sweet potato, which is not the same species) is scientifically called Solanum tuberosum. Although grown as an annual, it is actually a perennial of the nightshade family (along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). Potatoes are the world’s fourth largest food crop (after corn, wheat, and rice), and there’s not a family that hasn’t eaten potatoes in some form – baked potato, french fries, hash browns, scalloped potatoes, potato salad, latkes, etc.
The potato was first domesticated in southern Peru and northwest Bolivia 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. Although its orgins are in the Andes area of South America, North America was introduced to the potato by the Europeans. The Spanish explorers took the potato from the Incans and brought it to Europe at the end of the 16th century. The potato then spread throughout Europe and was later brought to North America by the European colonists. This simple tuber was actually responsible for one fourth of the growth of the Old World population and urbanization from 1700-1900. Currently, there are over 5,000 varieties of potatoes in the world!
The word potato originated from the Spanish word patata, which was actually used for the sweet potato. The English confused the two plants and adapted the word for the Irish potato. The nickname spud has an interesting etymology, as well. It was used originally (c. 1440) as a term for a short knife or dagger, from the Latin word spad, meaning sword. (That’s the word we get the English word spade from.) During the 16th century, the word spud was used to describe the digging tools used to dig the hole for planting potatoes. By 1845, the word was transferred to the tuber itself. And we’ve been calling potatoes spuds ever since.
Interestingly, not all varieties of potatoes flower. Those that do can have flowers of various colors – white, pink, red, blue, or purple flowers with yellow stamens. Generally (though not exclusively), white-skinned potatoes have white flowers while pinkish-skinned potatoes have colored flowers.
When eaten with the skins, potatoes are very high in fiber. In fact, they have the same fiber content as many whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals. They are also very nutritious. Although the cooking method significantly affects the nutrient availability, here are just SOME of the vitamins and minerals found in one large, baked potato with skin (shown as percentage of RDA): 48% Vitamin C, 46% Vitamin B6, 21% each of folate and niacin, 46% potassium, 33% manganese, 21% each of magnesium and phosphorous, and 18% each of iron and copper.
Potatoes are a cool weather crop as the tubers will stop forming when the soil temperature reaches 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of that, they can be grown in all zones as an annual. Check the preferred planting time for your zone, however, as they are sensitive to heavy frosts. (In Zone 8, planting is February 1-15.) Potatoes like loamy soil, that is not abundant with organic matter, with a pH between 5.0 and 6.0. Yields increase and the chance for disease (especially scab) decreases when the pH is closer to 5.0. Potatoes also need full sun to partial shade.
Although some potato varieties produce true, botanical seed, almost all potatoes are grown from “seed potatoes” – pieces of potato with one or two eyes on them. To get eyes to grow, place potatoes in a paper bag and keep it closed in a cool place for about a month. About 5-7 days prior to planting, cut the potatoes so each piece has one or two eyes on it. Place the pieces back into the paper bag or into a covered box to “heal.” (If you plant them freshly cut, they will rot in the ground. The air hardens the cut edge, sealing in the moisture.)
When they’re ready, plant the potatoes eyes UP, three inches deep, and twelve inches apart. Water well. The moisture content of the soil is very important, and is especially critical when the tubers are bulking up. Be sure your crop gets consistent water of at least one inch per week.
When the plants are about 10-12 inches tall, you must “hill them up” by burying the plant with more soil so only four inches of the plant sticks out of the ground. This is to be sure that all the tubers grow fully covered by soil as sunlight creates a chemical in the tuber that is toxic. (If you get a green potato, don’t eat it. The toxin shows up green on the skin.)
You can also plant potatoes in a grow bag or bucket. See my post Planting Potatoes for how I grew them in five-gallon buckets last year. If you’re going to plant potatoes every year, be very sure not to plant potatoes in the same place for three years. As with other nightshades, potatoes are very susceptible to pests and diseases. Good crop rotation practices will help protect your plants and increase your harvest.
Potato plants will grow about two feet tall. Some varieties flower, some don’t. There are early potatoes, mid-season potatoes, and late potatoes so maturation times vary from 60 to 120 days, depending on variety. So, how do you know when your potatoes are ready? Easy! The plants will start dying back – turning yellow or brown, drooping – as though something was wrong with the plant. Once that occurs, the tubers are mature. However, do not harvest them until two weeks after the tops die back; that will give the skins time to “harden.”
For pictures and more information on harvesting, see my post Harvesting Potatoes.
Potatoes can be stored, but not for extended periods of time. If you’re going to store them, do NOT wash them until you’re ready to eat them. Then store them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. For short-term storage, the temperature should be 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. For long-term storage, the temperature should be 39 degrees Fahrenheit. (Never let the temperature go below 39 degrees, as this will ruin the potatoes.)
If you live in the South, any kind of raw storage past a couple weeks is out of the question. Thankfully, potatoes can be frozen and dehydrated for long-term storage.
FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:
I bet there are more recipes for potatoes than any other item we cook. I have several recipes for potatoes that I plan to post in the near future. In the meantime, here are a few yummy recipes to get your juices flowing:
Vegetable and Feta Latkes – I made these this past Hanukkah, and they are the BEST latkes I’ve ever made!! Definitely a keeper. (And who says latkes should be for Hanukkah only?)
Julia Child’s Potato-Leek Soup – I had a potato leek soup on a Carnival cruise years ago that was so fantastic I’ve been looking for a recipe to re-create that flavor every since. I’m going to try this one. How can you go wrong with Julia Child?
Scalloped Potatoes – A great side dish for whatever you’re serving for dinner.
Potatoes are a nutritional veggie that can be cooked in any number of ways. Consider growing them in your garden this year. And comment below if you tried one of these recipes.