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.

Common Name

Scientific Name

Description

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.

Potato3.jpg (12837 bytes)

Copyright © S.J. Crouthamel

Revised 2010