Learning to love the potato
POTATO (Solanum tuberosum L.)
The Indians used another type of root that they called potatoes, which are like truffles and have a few leaves. They collect potatoes and let them dry well in the sun and break them to make what they called chuño, which can be preserved for many days and serves as bread.
José Acosta (1590) - ‘Historia natural y moral de las Indias’
The potato originated in the Andes, where the indigenous population domesticated a variety of native wild species. Potato cultivation is at least 5000 years old, and potatoes are still an essential part of Andean culture to this day.
The potato arrived in Spain via the Spanish conquistadors, later spreading throughout Europe. Initially, potatoes were restricted to botanical gardens, due to the unwillingness of the population to consume them. However, over the years, the value of the potato was recognised and by the end of the 18th century, it had become a staple food in northern Europe. It is now the fourth most important food crop in the world, cultivated in more than 150 countries.
With an estimated number of 1,400 species, Solanum is the most numerous genus of the family Solanaceae. All marketed potatoes belong to one species from which a few varieties are grown. However, there are 200 species of wild potatoes in America, and in the Andes more than 5000 varieties are cultivated, adapted to different terrains and altitudes. Unfortunately, many of these varieties and their wild relatives are now being lost due mainly to climate change. A recent study, highlighted in the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, predicts that as much as 22 percent of the wild relatives of important food crops such as peanut, potato and beans will disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate.
Although the vast majority of cultivated potatoes are grown for human consumption, they are also an important source of starch used in the food industry as a thickener. They are used for the production of alcoholic drinks such as vodka and spirits, and also have a role in the pharmaceutical and textile industries as an adhesive and for paper making. In traditional medicine, the potato is used in treatment of ulcers, burns and rashes.