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10/13/03 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) Digging potatoes may be one of the more mundate garden chores this time of year, but commentator Vern Grubinger says that the humble potato has a colorful past.

(Grubinger) We've eaten them boiled. We've eaten them mashed. We've eaten them scalloped and baked and hashed. Apologies to Dr. Suess, but we eat a lot of potatoes. The average American consumes 140 pounds of spuds each year, mostly in processed form like French fries and potato chips. And worldwide, potato is the number four food crop, surpassed only by wheat, rice, and corn.

But the potato is more than just popular, it's persistent. Imagine, a vegetable that never dies. Consider that the potato is vegetatively propagated. Each new plant comes from a piece of an older plant, by sprouting from the eyes of potatoes. The new plants that sprout each spring are identical clones of their parents that were harvested the previous autumn, and their parent the autumn before that, and so on. Thus, their claim to immortality.

Botanically, potatoes are tubers, which are not part of the plants's root system but fleshy swellings on underground stems, or stolons. And while most flowers of commercial potato varieties are sterile, occasionally they reproduce in the conventional fashion, resulting in the true seed that is so dear to plant breeders.

The most famous plant breeder is Luther Burbank. In 1872, while walking in his garden outside of Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank found a rare seed ball ripening on an Early Rose potato plant. This potato fruit contained 23 tiny seeds that Burbank planted, later selecting two plants from the seedlings.

Burbank described the launching of his career. "It was from the potatoes of those two plants, carefully raised, carefully dug, jealously guarded, and painstakingly planted the next year, that I built the Burbank potato. And it was from the Burbank potato that I made my beginning as a plant developer." The Burbank potato was the ancestor of the Russet Burbank, now the most widely grown variety in the United States, and the source of most of our French fries.

Several thousand years ago, the Inca people of South America were the first to cultivate potatoes. Europeans discovered the potato much later when the Spanish conquered what is now Peru. By the end of the sixteenth century families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the coast of northern Spain.

Half a century later, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland on land given to him by Queen Elizabeth the first. And two hundred and fifty years after that, the potato had become the primary food of the Irish population. Then, in 1845 and 1846 the fungus that causes late blight destroyed the potato crop and caused the Irish Potato Famine. A million people died and a million more left the country.

Although potatoes had arrived in the Colonies in 1621, along with other vegetables delivered to Jamestown, the first permanent potato plantings in North America were established a hundred years later near Londonderry, New Hampshire. The spuds that were planted had come from Ireland, and the name Irish' potato has stuck ever since.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Related link:
U.S. Potato Board's "Potato 101"

Vern Grubinger is the Director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the vegetable and berry specialist for UVM Extension. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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