Its history is difficult to trace, partly because the name potato was also used by early writers for the sweet potato ( Ipomoea batatas ) and for other unrelated plants. Spanish explorers are believed to have brought it in the 16th cent. from Peru to Spain, whence it spread N and W throughout Europe. It was brought to North America by European settlers probably c.1600 thus, like the closely related tomato, it is a reintroduced food plant in the New World. The potato was first accepted as a large-scale crop in the British Isles. It became the major food in Ireland during the 18th cent. and is hence often called Irish potato to distinguish it from the sweet potato. Ireland was so dependent on the potato that the failure (resulting from blight) of the 1845–46 crop caused a famine resulting in widespread disease, death, and emigration. The potato was also important to the course of history in the 20th cent. in Europe, especially in Germany, where it kept the country alive during two world wars.
The potato is today a primary food of Western peoples, as well as a source of starch, flour, alcohol, dextrin, and fodder (chiefly in Europe, where more is used for this purpose than for human consumption). Nutritionally, the potato is high in carbohydrates and a good source of protein, vitamin C, the B vitamins, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. Most of the minerals and protein are concentrated in a thin layer beneath the skin, and the skin itself is a source of food fiber health authorities therefore recommend cooking and eating potatoes unpeeled.
The potato grows best in a cool, moist climate in the United States mostly in Maine and Idaho. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Belarus are the greatest potato-producing countries of Europe, and China and India are now (with Russia) among the top three potato growers. Potatoes are usually propagated by planting pieces of the tubers that bear two or three
the buds of the underground stems. The plant is sensitive to frost, is subject to certain fungus and virus diseases (e.g., mosaic, wilt, and blight), and is attacked by several insect pests, especially the
. Potatoes are classified in the division
, class Magnoliopsida, order Polemoniales, family Solanaceae.
See studies by L. Zuckerman (1998) and J. Reader (2009).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Plants
Browse by Subject
- Earth and the Environment +-
- History +-
- Literature and the Arts +-
- Medicine +-
- People +-
- Philosophy and Religion +-
- Places +-
- Australia and Oceania
- Britain, Ireland, France, and the Low Countries
- Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic Nations
- Germany, Scandinavia, and Central Europe
- Latin America and the Caribbean
- Oceans, Continents, and Polar Regions
- Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and the Balkans
- United States, Canada, and Greenland
- Plants and Animals +-
- Science and Technology +-
- Social Sciences and the Law +-
- Sports and Everyday Life +-