Potato – Everything About This Indispensable Food Crop

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are native to America, like sweet potatoes, but quickly became popular in most parts of the world thanks to their simple growing habits and versatility.

We all love mashed potatoes, potato chips, baked potatoes, potato salads, and the list goes on! If you think of it, there isn’t much you can make for dinner if potatoes were skipped from the ingredient list.

Potato is a starchy tuber that is a perennial, but it’s cultivated as an annual since we dig them up to harvest the tubers before the plant can see its second growing season. It belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae. There are several other nightshade plants from the same family, including eggplant and tomato.

But what is the potato plant, where does it come from, and what kind of climate does it prefer? There a lot about these delicious tubers that you might still not know. Read on and let the mystery unfold.

Common NamePotato
Botanical NameSolanum Tuberosum
Plant TypeA Perennial But Grown As An Annual
Size (Fully Grown)2 To 3 Feet Tall (About 61 To 91 cm) And Produce 3 To 25 Potatoes
Sun ExposureFull Sun
Soil TypePrefers Loose Soil That Drains Well, And Is High In Organic Matter
Soil pHFrom 4.8 To 6.0
Flower ColorDepending On The Variety, White, Red, Pink, Purple Or Blue
U.S. Hardiness Zones3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 10b
Native AreaPeruvian-Bolivian Andes

Different Potato Varieties

Several potato varieties vary in their color, shape, size, and texture. Starchy potatoes are great for frying and baking, while the waxy cultivars work well in soups, stews, and salads. In the United States, there are more than 200 different varieties available. Here’s a list of some of the most popular ones:

  1. Red
  2. Gala
  3. Cara
  4. Laura
  5. Abbot
  6. Viking
  7. Russet
  8. Yellow
  9. All Blue
  10. Rooster
  11. Marabel
  12. Chieftan
  13. Fingerling
  14. Arran Pilot
  15. Sarpo Mira
  16. Linda Potato
  17. King Edward
  18. Irish Cobbler
  19. Mountain Rose
  20. Golden Wonder

Origins And History Of The Potato Plant

Following rice, wheat, and maize, potato is also one of the world’s most cultivated food crops. How did it develop its reputation as an indispensable member of the vegetable family? Where did it come from?
Potato’s origins can be traced back to what is now known as southern Peru. Inca Indians of the region had been cultivating it from 8000 to 5000BC.

The earliest archeological records verify potato remains from the coasts Ancon in central Peru back from 2500 BC. Though there is no evidence for potatoes before that, historians suggest that South America’s potato cultivation could go back over 10,000 years.

Surprisingly, potato’s history in Europe isn’t as old as it is in America. It was only introduced to the Europeans towards the end of the 16th century when the Spanish conquered Peru. Around the same time, in 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes in Ireland.

The crop’s popularity eventually grew across Europe as the agriculturists found it easier to grow and store than other staple food crops. Thus, by the 19th century, potato was the most common vegetable throughout Europe. But these days, most of the cultivation is based in China, India, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

How To Recognize A Potato Plant?

What is the potato plant, and what does it look like? Let’s take a closer look.

The Plant

Potato is a herbaceous perennial that’s cultivated as an annual. It grows to about 3 feet tall (about 91 cm) and produces branched stems with compound leaves. The starch made in these leaves is transferred downwards to the end of the stems below the soil. These parts of the stem thicken to form tubers.

Though the plant flowers towards the end of the growing season, they rarely produce any fruit. The plant foliage also dies in winter. Now that we’re talking about how potatoes behave during winters, it’s good to know that the plant stores energy in the tubers attached to the root system. This is what enables it to survive through the winters and sprout new shoots for another growing season. But, as you know, we usually harvest the plant before they get a chance to resprout.

What Potatoes Look Like?

Leaves

The plant has branched stems with alternately arranged sets of leaves and leaflets. The leaflets are usually oblong, while the leaves are typically 4 to 12 inches (about 10 to 30 cm) long and 2 to 6 inches (approximately 5 to 15 cm) wide. The foliage dies down after the plant flowers, fruits, and develops tubers.

Flowers And Fruit

The plant produces white, purple, pink, or even blue flowers with yellow stamens. It flowers towards the end of the growing season, 3 to 4 months after planting. But, they’ll usually wither away before they produce any fruit. Through the years of cultivation, potatoes have become less capable of producing seeds.

If the flowers do fertilize, you’ll see yellow-green fruits, very similar in appearance to unripe cherry tomatoes. Each little fruit bears hundreds of seeds that you can use for the propagation of new plants. But bear in mind that even though the fruits may look appealing, they’re highly toxic!

Tubers

The starchy, flavorful tubers are the reason why we love potato plants so much. Since it grows underground, most people confuse it for the plant’s root. It’s not the roots that we harvest and consume. Instead, it’s the enlarged part of the plant’s stem, and each plant can produce anywhere between 3 to 20 tubers.

The tubers will vary in their shape, size, and color depending on the variety, but they usually weigh around 10,6 ounces each (about 300 grams). The skin color ranges from yellow to red and can even be purple in some types.

What Climate Is Best For The Potato Plant?

Potatoes are a huge favorite among gardeners, all thanks to their easy-going growing habits. Growing potatoes even makes for a fun and rewarding project with kids. Thus, if you’re planning on growing potatoes in your home garden, here’s what you should know about the temperature and climate they prefer.

The Temperature

Potatoes take about 75 to 135 cool, frost-free days to mature from the date of planting the seed potatoes. They’re usually planted after the date of the last spring frost, as soon as the soil can be worked. The soil temperature needs to be at least 50°F (about 10°C) when you plant them.

The ideal soil temperatures should remain between 60 to 70°F (about 15,5 to 21°C) for the tubers’ optimal growth. Remember that potatoes will stop growing once the soil temperature rises above 80°F (about 26,7°C).

The Climate

Potatoes grow best as summer crops in most northern areas, while those with hot summers can plant them as a winter crop. Just make sure that the temperatures stay within the ideal range throughout the growing season. Mulching the soil with organic material will also keep the soil cooler for the better development of tubers.

Plant them at a site with full sun, where it receives at least 6 hours of sunlight every day. They prefer well-drained, cool soil, amended with organic compost before planting. Maintain even moisture, with about 1 to 2 inches (about 2,5 to 5 cm) of water each week. Also, don’t forget to “hill” them at least three times during their growth to prevent the tubers from getting exposed to sunlight.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Potatoes?

Potatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making them a delicious source of many vital nutrients. But there can be some side effects for specific individuals that you should know about.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Ripe potatoes, without any visible damages, are likely safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. But, like every other veggie, herb, and fruit, it’s advisable to consume them in moderate quantities only.

Children

Children love potatoes. They’re rich in carbohydrates, making them a good source of energy for their growing age. Green potatoes and sprouts may contain poisonous substances, so as a side effect, they are unsafe for both children and adults.

People With Allergies

Potato allergies are uncommon but can affect some hypersensitive children and adults. If you see any vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, rash, swelling of mouth, tongue, or throat, consult a doctor.

People With Diabetes

People who have diabetes should always be aware of their carbohydrate intake. And, even though potatoes are an excellent plant in almost every way, and yes, people with diabetes can eat them also. But people with diabetes shouldn’t still overeat potatoes because they are high in a carbohydrate type that your body digests quickly. This also means that the insulin and blood sugar levels in your body rise and then dip soon after eating potatoes.

Pets

The tubers are the only safe parts of the potato plant for both humans and pets, as long as you cook them thoroughly. The other parts of the plant growing above the ground contain high levels of a toxic substance, solanine.

The poisonous substance is mostly concentrated in the green berries that appear after the plant flowers. So, make sure your pets don’t ingest any part of the plant. If you’re going to feed them the tubers, do so once you’ve cooked them thoroughly.

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