Monday, May 5, 2014

Potatoes: A Story of Feast, Famine - and Poison

"'Plant potatoes,' I said. 
Jenny's mouth dropped slightly open, then she firmed her jaw and nodded briskly. 
'Potatoes. Aye. There's none closer than Edinburgh, but I'll send for them. How many?' 
'As many as you can. They're not planted in the Highlands now, but they will be. They're a root crop that will keep for a long time, and the yield is better than wheat. Put as much in the ground as you can into crops that can be stored. There's going to be a famine, a bad one, in two years.'" 
-- From OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 33  
As a time-traveler, Claire knew what a calamity The Rising would be. She advised Jenny to plant potatoes so the residents of Lallybroch would have a better chance of surviving the coming disaster. 

According to the SUNSET WESTERN GARDEN BOOK, "two pounds of seed potatoes can yield up to 50 pounds of potatoes for eating." That is a remarkable return on investment! Add to that the fact that potatoes are nutritious, especially compared with what was available at the time, and they were nothing short of a wonder crop for Highlanders.

However, it took a bit of convincing to get farmers to plant them. When explorers brought potatoes to Europe from South America in the early 1700s, farmers recognized them as members of the deadly nightshade family and wanted no part of them. But those that did try growing potatoes were soon rewarded with abundant yields. And when it appeared that no one died from eating one, more farmers started planting them. Potatoes quickly became a staple crop throughout Europe. According to Wikipedia, "the introduction of the potato was responsible for a quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900."

While potatoes may have prevented complete disaster for the residents of Lallybroch in the 1740s and 50s, they were the cause of a disaster in the Highlands in the 1840s. The Highland Potato Famine of 1846 brought widespread malnutrition, disease and financial loss. It is estimated that 1.7 million people left Scotland between 1846 and 1852 because of the famine, many forcibly moved to Canada and Australia. 

Botanical Information
Family: Solonaceae
Genus: Solanum
Species: Solanum tuberosum

Potatoes are native to South America. Today's many varieties can be traced back to origins in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia. It is believed that potatoes have been in cultivation for 7,000 - 10,000 years. Potatoes are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tobacco, deadly nightshade many other plants.

Potatoes are susceptible to blight caused by a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans. As potatoes have become a staple crop worldwide, considerable effort has been made to come up with varieties that are disease resistant. To date, there isn't a perfectly resistant cultivar, but there several that perform well. It is estimated that there are 5,000 varieties of potatoes in cultivation.

Nutritional Value

Potatoes are good sources of Vitamin C and B vitamins, particularly B6. They also contain small amounts of protein, folate and Vitamin K. Most of the calories in a potato come from starch. Potatoes also contain some insoluble fiber which aids digestion.

Toxicity

Green skin on potatoes is caused by a concentration of chlorophyll which indicates the presence of a chemical called solanine. Solanine is a neurotoxin and if ingested in large amounts it can cause diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and even paralysis. Of course, you would have to eat a heck of a lot of potatoes, about 4-1/2 pounds, in order to get enough solanine into your system to feel the ill effects. So while it's best not to eat green potato skins, don't panic if you realize you've eaten a potato chip with a bit of green on it. Do not eat raw green shoots on potatoes or any part of the potato vine, as these are poisonous also. One of the few cases of toxicity reported in the US in the past 50 years involved someone drinking tea made with the leaves of a potato plant. Dinna do that!

Agricultural practices are another source of toxicity when it comes to potatoes. The Environmental Working Group lists potatoes on its "Dirty Dozen" list of vegetables and fruits that have the highest levels of pesticide residues. The fungicides and herbicides used in mass production of potatoes are absorbed into the flesh of the tubers - you can't wash them off. So your best bet is to buy organically grown potatoes or, as you'll see in the video below, grow your own.

Cultivation

This video gives you easy to follow instructions on how to grow your own potatoes without the use of toxic chemicals. So why not give them a try? Plant some potatoes and think of Jenny and Lallybroch.

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