Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Prevalent Potatoes

By: Keelin Purcell, Manager of School and Farm Programs
In preparation for a new Lippitt Farm Walk and Talk program, my intern Jenna and I did a lot of research on farms in 1845. One of the topics that I explored was the history and use of the potato (Solanum tubersoum).
Our potatoes growing in early July.
Potatoes are fascinating in that they are so prevalent in our culture’s food, and yet many people do not recognize the growing plant. Make sure to visit to see and touch the plants growing in our Interpretive Field Garden across from the Lippitt House. Another interesting thing about potatoes is while they are referred to as a root vegetable, they are actually tubers, which are enlarged underground stems. So when we eat potatoes, we are eating stems! In contrast, a sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a true root, as are carrots, beets, and parsnips. 
Our potatoes growing in early August.
Potatoes were very important in 1800s agriculture. They supplanted many other root crops, in part because they can be easily propagated asexually by cutting up (eyeing) and planting the previous year’s potatoes. An acre of potatoes also produces four times more dietary calories than an acre of grain.

Because potatoes do not grow true to type, they were almost always propagated asexually. However, by growing them to seed, many different varieties were produced. In 1845, there was a large selection of potato varieties to choose from, though most families grew one or two types. Potato epidemics were fairly common, because all the potatoes of a given type were clones and therefore very susceptible to contracting the same disease.
Potato choices from a 1881 seed catalog in the collection of the NYSHA Research Library.
Potatoes are harvested once the tops die back and would have been dried before going into the root cellar. Potatoes were steamed, mashed, boiled, fried, and roasted, as well as made into flour and starch.
This year we are growing Green Mountain, Red Natural, and Kennebec potatoes in our Interpretive Field Garden, as well as Fingerlings in the Kitchen Garden. I enjoyed the chance to learn more about the history of potatoes, and I am looking forward to seeing this year’s crop. My sources included Judith Sumner’s American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900, Charles Bosson’s Observations on the Potatoe, and a Remedy for the Potato Plague, and U.P. Hendrick’s A History of Agriculture in the State of New York.


RI Greening said...

I was surprised a few years ago, when I discovered that 19th century potato farmers didn't fully understand they could stretch their seed potatoes by cutting them into single-eye pieces!


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