The potato is originally derived from the Andes of South America where Native Americans were cultivating potatoes and other tubers by 10,000 years ago in the high Andean mountains of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
The potato was important as a high altitude crop that could be freeze-dried into a product called chuño, which looks like a dried prune. There were about 7-10 cultivated species with thousands (3800) varieties in color, size, taste, and shape. The people of the Andes ( Quechua) grew maize, beans, and squash in lower altitudes, but developed a variety of plants that could grow in a high altitude plateau known as the puna. Most of these high altitude plants were developed with characteristics to resist the extreme cold of altitudes between 5,000 and 14,000' above sea level. The peanut and potato are two familiar examples, but there were many more less known. Many of these native cultigens are roots or rhizomes that are protected under ground, since nighttime temperatures can drop as much as 40-50 degrees F. Here are a few of those tubers that are beginning to attract attention due to their frost resistance, but also due to their resistance to disease.
|Potato, Papa||Solanum tuberosum||7 cultivated species|
|Oca, Cavi||Oxalis tuberosa||clover-like with wrinkled, multi-colored tubers|
|Arracacha, Apio||Arracacia xanthorrhiza||carrot-like tuber|
|Maca||Lepidium meyenii||mustard family; turnip-like tuber, grows up to 14,000'|
|Ajipa||Pachyrrhizus ahipa||climbing vine/legume;large10 lb. root related to jicama (from Mexico)|
|Yacon, Aricoma||Polymnia sonchifolia||sunflower relative; tubers in bunches, also like jicama|
|Ulluco, Papa Lisa||Ullucos tuberosus||multi-colored/shiny tubers; look like plastic; highly resistent to temp.|
|Achira, Queensland arrowroot||Canna edulis||lily with edible rhizomes|
|Mashua||Tropaeolum tuberosum||nasturtium relative; frost tolerant, over 100 varieties|
There were other tubers from America, but they tended to be grown in the lowlands of Brazil or the Caribbean and did spread to other tropical climates. They include the following:
|Cassava, Manioc,Yuca||Manihot esculenta||sweet/bitter forms; high starch, but very low in protein|
|Sweet potato, Batata||Ipomoea batatas||looks like a yam, but different|
|Yampee, Indian Yam||Dioscorea trifida||only American yam; other yams originate in SE Asia|
|Arrowroot, Eredu||Maranta arundinacea||rich, starchy rhizome|
|Coco-yam,Yautia||Xanthsoma sagittifolium||Araceae family|
|Topee Tambu, Allulia||Calathea allouia||sm. hard tubers like water chestnut|
As one can seen the potato is but one of many tuber-like crops that came from America. It was by chance that the potato was used as a cheap food for sailors returning to Europe from America. Once the potato got to Europe, its ability to grow in poor soils, resistance to cold, and ease of management gave it an edge for temperate European environments with already overtaxed soils. It is too bad that Europeans didn't investigate Peruvian agronomy more since there were disease resistant forms of the potato. The Europeans used only three varieties of potato, but they were enough to provide food energy for thousands of poor workers that in turn provided a base to the industrialization of Western Europe, especially in the British Isles, Holland, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Recent evidence indicates that the improved nutrients and yield per area of land (1/2 acre potatoes: 1 1/2 acres wheat, oats or barley) increased life expectancy and decreased mortality, which conservatively increased world population 25% from 1700-1900. Everyone tends to think of Ireland and the potato the most for deterring outright starvation; unfortunately this eventually led to disaster with sole dependency on potatoes forcing a generation of Irish to migrate to Australia, Africa, and America. The worst outbreak of 'late blight' occurred in 1845-46 and 1 million starved to death. In spite of earlier disasters, the potato continues to be one of the major sources of food calories in the world. The International Potato Center (CIP) is working to restore many lost ancient Andean varieties that are disease resistant and more nutritious.
Copyright © S.J. Crouthamel