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Wandering around the intertubz this week I saw a sentence that I thought was funny:

I was told that Irish Gaelic had over 17 words to describe the potato and different ways of preparing it.
Like someone on the forum said, it sounds a bit like the Eskimo/snow quip that has been discredited.

On the other hand, I can probably think of at least 17 ways that my family has prepared potato dishes. Most of our meals had a potato in some form. Sometimes boiled. Mashed. Roasted. Pan fried. Deep fried. Colcannon. Au gratin....mmmm.... On a trip to Ireland my dad was begging everyone who would listen for boxty.

But sometimes I think about other aspects of potatoes. Last week I was reading a paper about The Potato’s Contribution to Population and Urbanization that I found in this Go to work on a potato post by Alun Salt. I was surprised by this part (emphasis mine):

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it seems that potatoes were as freakish to Europeans as Australian wildlife was later when it was discovered. Potatoes were grown from tubers, not seeds. This was unlike anything seen. It looked unappealing. In fact Nunn and Qian add the note that on the doctrine of signatures popular at the time, the appearance of the potato made it look like it was connected to leprosy. In that situation it’s less surprising that the pioneers to cultivate potatoes regularly were Irish peasants.
Heh--irrational health fears about a food that was new. Imagine. In the paper it says that people linked it to leprosy because it looked like affected skin. Yet the spud turned out to have major positive impact on a lot of Europeans possibly because it was more nutritious than other crops that could be grown in the same small area. So it eventually prevailed and became widespread. And I suppose I should add that it also did not cause leprosy.

But this plant has a dramatic impact on my family in another way. We are in the US at least in part because of a problem with the potato crop: blight. (Well, and then there's that relative who had to leave the country because he was charged with announcing too many Banns. As far as I know that's unrelated to potato issues.)

For years I have been told that the problem with the potato famine was that only one variety of potato was grown. And it struck me that was probably an incomplete story. There are some potatoes that are better for mashing. Some for frying, some for animal feed, etc. Water content, size, flavors, maturation, etc--I really couldn't believe a culture that had so many ways to prepare potatoes had only one kind.

So I went to look for some details on that. I found an article from the Irish Department of Agriculture. I was delighted to hear about how many potato accessions they maintain:

Comprising over 400 accessions, the collection includes old and modern Irish potato varieties as well as varieties from abroad. Some of the old varieties date back to pre-famine times (e.g. Lumper, Black Potato and Skerry Champion). The wide variation of genetic diversity contained within the varieties conserved in this collection ensures a broad genetic base of potato germplasm is maintained. Such diversity will be available to assist potato plant breeders facing the unknown challenges of the future such as climate change.
Here they several reference pre-famine varieties, and they also mention a booklet with more details. Potato Varieties of Historical Interest in Ireland is available as a PDF.  In this booklet we learn:
The potato began to diversify into varieties as its cultivation spread. In 1785, Marshall complained of the indiscriminate raising of seedlings and described the varieties extant as ‘endless’....
Wacky breeders and their "endless" varieties.
Of the many pre-famine varieties which undoubtedly existed, few have survived to the present day. Some of the varieties most cultivated in Ireland during this period included: Blacks; Yellows; Cluster; Irish Apple; Red Nose Kidney (syn. Wicklow Banger); Cork Red; Lumper and Cups....

Although it was claimed that ‘Lumpers suffered more than any other variety (from blight)’ (Anon., 1845), in truth, most pre-Famine potato varieties were blight susceptible, and varieties such as Cups, which were grown by more affluent farmers, never recovered their position post-1847 (Davidson, 1933).

Although the "Lumper" was widely grown because they were highly productive, they certainly weren't the only potato on the island. The book goes on to talk about many of the other varieties both before and after the famine years, with photos and descriptions. It's quite worth a look.

Last year I became interested in the story of the famine again based on a segment of an NPR book show. It was about the book 1493. In this show the author was describing the massive industry that developed around South American guano. And he indicated that what brought the blight to Ireland was, in fact, this organic fertilizer.

I hadn't heard that detail before. I had not been aware of the enormous guano market of the 1800s. It seems that they used to fill the holds of ships with guano and take it to North America and to Europe to use. That's right--major trade in organic fertilizer was going on. And that fertilizer likely carried the pathogen overseas.

Maryn McKenna covers the European eruption of blight in her story: Diseases and borders: Potatoes and St. Patrick’s Day.

The late blight — caused by a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, that originated in central Mexico and migrated to the Andes — had come to Ireland. The Great Hunger, an Gorta Mór, had begun.
I looked for the data on this, and found that yes--the blight matched that from South American samples. Museum specimens could be checked (there are examples in this paper of some of the museum pieces [a PDF of it here]), and they found that the strain in Ireland in 1845 resembled the one from Peru:
An Andean source of inoculum initiated epidemics first in the U.S. and then Ireland that led to the famine.
There were many other contributing factors to the subsequent hunger, of course. Cultural conditions and government policies weighed heavily in this disaster which persisted--and recurred--over many years.

And that's why some of my family and many others like mine arrived on these shores. But I really had no idea it was organic fertilizer that set the whole thing into motion so suddenly. And that it was biotechnology that solved the case only in the last few years. Biotechnology is also important to maintain all those accessions and to produce healthy stocks. And, of course, to seek ways to reduce the use of fungicides. It's also now used to track and understand the pathogen, which is evolving, as they all do.

Originally posted to mem from somerville on Sat Mar 17, 2012 at 01:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Shamrock American Kossacks.

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