Whilst it may not be gardening weather just at the moment, as soon as the Christmas decorations are packed away most gardener’s attention will turn to getting ready for the new growing year. For the majority of these, that will mean starting the magical process of setting out seed potato tubers in trays or eggboxes, and waiting for their small dark green shoots to appear and herald the arrival of Spring. But how many gardeners know the fascinating history of the humble spud, and the enormous effect it has throughout the world?
The potato (Solanum tuberosum) was first cultivated some 8000 years ago, in the South American Andes, where they were worshipped in many myths and rituals. These original tubers were very bitter as they had high levels of the toxins solanine and tomatine – locals had to eat clay with their spuds to stop these from being absorbed! It is commonly believed that Sir Francis Drake introduced the potato to Europe in 1578 after a voyage to Chile, but this is actually highly unlikely. Recent research using DNA means that it is much more probable that Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers bough the first potatoes back to the Canary Islands and that they then made their way into Europe from there.
The adoption of the humble spud has been credited with fueling the Industrial Revolution – providing a new, cheap food source for industrial workers- but also led to the notorious Irish crop failures in 1845 and 1846 which caused the death of one and a half million Irish people. Today the potato is the fourth largest food crop in the world and in just 500 years production has spread from the Andes across the globe, even to warm, tropical Asia.
For today’s gardener, the range of seed potatoes available is large and varied. RV Roger Ltd in Pickering are offering over 80 varieties, including many rare and heritage varieties. The most popular is undoubtedly Arran Pilot, a first-early originally introduced in 1930 but still unsurpassed for flavour and reliability as an early ’scraper’. For the mashed potato connoisseur, try ‘Yukon Gold’ – bred in the 1980’s to recreate the sublime flavour of a prized variety grown in Lima, Peru. ‘Charlotte’ is another perennial favourite, a waxy potato that tastes great both hot, smothered in butter and mint, or cold in a salad. After the wet weather of last summer, many gardeners are looking at disease-resistant varieties which can withstand the vagaries of the British Summer – both Lady Balfour and Sarpo Mira perform very well, are perfect for organic production and have a great flavour too!
All the staff at RV Roger Ltd have been growing potatoes for years – if you would like any advice, call in or phone us and we would be delighted to help you grow your own potatoes and be part of this 8000 year old story.