One Stud of a Spud: The Potato in Botany, Art, and Human History

(Solanum tuberosum): Apple of the Earth is currently on exhibit in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum; the exhibit is included with Garden admission and will close on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Garden is hosting a special potato dish tasting event with Rob Connoley of Bulrush.

The Potato’s Beginnings

They’re cheap, unattractive, and covered in dirt, but potatoes are the unlikely subject of worldwide affection. In spite of their lackluster looks, the cultivation of potatoes was a bit like striking gold; they’re filling, surprisingly nutritious, and produce crops generous enough to feed a whole village. With a little bit of butter, garlic, and fresh parsley, this food that was once disdained by the wealthy as a working-class practicality has become a beloved treat for people of all backgrounds, with dishes ranging from greasy French fries to delicate croquettes.

The flowers and fruits of a variety of solanum plants. Courtesy of Dr. David Spooner.

The potato is native to the Andes Mountains, where the Moche and Chimú people grew, cultivated, and thrived off of them. When the Spanish arrived in the 1590s and saw the potato for the first time, there were already thousands of varieties. “And that’s what makes a Yukon different from a russet,” says Sachs Museum Curator Nezka Pfeifer. “It’s just a different hybrid.”

The Spanish saw how prevalent the potato was in these peoples’ diets, but they were not intrigued by its culinary potential. Even so, they brought potatoes back with them to Europe because they recognized its value as sustenance. “The potato is an extremely efficient crop, so besides the fact that it can grow in a lot of really weird climates that shouldn’t really support potatoes—like wet and rocky Ireland—it has a ridiculously high yield in terms of vitamins,” Pfeifer says. “It even has vitamin C in it, which is quite unusual for a tuber, as well as a whole slew of other vitamins, like several B vitamins and a ton of minerals.” So, by way of Spanish ships, the potato made its way to Europe for the first recorded time. Still, “they pretty much saw it as worker-peasant food.”

A woman sells potatoes in a marketplace in La Paz, Bolivia, a city in the Andean Mountain range. Though they are now grown worldwide, potatoes are native to the Andes. Photo by Olga Martha Montiel.

Even as the potato kept spreading throughout Europe, it continued to be regarded as little more than a source of nourishment. That began to change with the life of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Parmentier was a French pharmacist who served during the Seven Years’ War and was captured by the Prussians. While imprisoned, he was served potatoes. At that time in France, potatoes were not eaten by people of any class and were served only to livestock; in fact, it was actually illegal to cultivate potatoes in France at this time.

Upon his release from prison, Parmentier began campaigning for the introduction of the potato into French cuisine. After he wrote essays, gifted a potato blossom bouquet to the king and queen, hosted high society dinners that featured potato dishes, and more, the cultivation of the potato was legalized in 1772. France’s worldwide influence on cuisine made this a huge turning point for the potato, and it began to gain traction as an increasingly respectable part of people’s diets.

Potato flower. Photo via Tropicos®

The Potato in Ireland

The integration of the potato into the human diet continues to be a source of both nourishment and culinary invention, but it has not come without risk. Because the potato is just one species, solanum tuberosum, a lack of genetic diversity makes it highly susceptible to mass disease. This spelled disaster for those who came to depend on it too heavily. The monochromatic potato prints of artist Corina Kennedy, currently on exhibition in the Sachs Museum, speak to the reality of that risk in their reference to the infamous Irish Potato Famine. “What I find really quite poignant is the fact that she used black ink to stamp the potatoes because she’s referencing what the potatoes looked like when the rot hit them,” says Pfeifer. A fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans overtook the potatoes and turned them black with blight for about eight years.

Pfeifer also notes that the term “famine” is not really used in Ireland to describe this time period; the Irish tend to refer to it instead as “the Great Hunger.” “There was massive destruction of the crop because of the potato blight, but what really happened was that the English government, which was in power in Ireland at the time, took too long to decide upon ways to help people,” Pfeifer explains. “So, in fact, there was food there, which is why the Irish didn’t like the word famine—there were other crops, but they were getting exported or they were serving other populations, and the government didn’t turn to the solution of soup kitchens or other ways to get people food until way too late.” The Great Hunger disproportionately affected poor Irish Catholic farmers who often depended almost exclusively on their crops (or the crops of the landlords whose farms they worked) for food. Many of those who worked for farmers were locked into those arrangements and found themselves at the mercy of their landlords––some landlords were kinder than others. By the end of the Great Hunger, over one million people had died from malnutrition and related complications.

A print from Corina Kennedy’s No Need Apply. The artwork of two other Irish-American artists, Dornith Doherty and Seamus O. Hames, is also on exhibit as a part of the show.

During the Great Hunger, many Irish Catholics fled Ireland for United States, hoping to find a better life overseas. The title of Kennedy’s piece, No Need Apply, is also in direct reference to the hatred that the Irish faced upon immigrating to the U.S. to escape the hunger in Ireland; upon arriving in America, they struggled to find work in the face of severe prejudice. To this day, many Irish Americans identify as Irish-Catholics, a direct result of how the Great Hunger disproportionally affected that population in Ireland. “All these layers of meaning just really gives you a lot of food for thought on the massive impact that this one humble, little, easily underestimated plant has made on human culture, diet, migration…everything,” Pfeifer notes.

The Potato Today

It’s tempting to see the Great Hunger as a thing of the past, but the reality is that potatoes are still at risk today. Because they are all the same species, another massive wipeout is entirely possible. “There’s definitely experimentation in terms of hybridization and trying to select genes that are more resistant to disease,” Pfeifer says, “but there are few that are truly resistant to the blight.” The potato also faces obstacles in the form of pests, including such bugs as the potato beetle, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, and the hawkmoth; as the world becomes more globalized, such pests are often accidentally transported along with people.

A Solanum tuberosum specimen from the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium. This particular specimen was collected by George Engelmann.

Despite all odds, the humble potato pushes on. Over 1.5 billion people eat the potato annually, and it can be found in nearly every country (excepting on the continent of Antarctica). The satisfying warmth and simplicity of the potato seems to resound with something in the human spirit; it is widely represented in pop culture phenomena such as Mr. Potato Head, potato-themed kitchen ceramics, potato masher collections, and more.

Two kitchen bowls in the form of potatoes. From the Peter Wyse Jackson Collection.

Why is it that we are so drawn to the potato? “It just has this amazing yield, and you can eat it almost exclusively as a food. I think that ancient peoples knew that,” Pfeifer says. “And they are so starchy and filling, so your belly feels really good when you eat them. They have this comforting quality, and they’re easy to multiply into large dishes, so there’s this communal aspect to them, too. People really have a passion for potatoes. I really haven’t met anyone who hates them.”

Kristina DeYong––Digital Media Specialist

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