Potato Planting Lessons

Written By: Suzy González

As the most consumed vegetables in the United States, potatoes are most popularly eaten as frozen french fries with the top producers in Idaho. But let’s not forget about the nutritional benefits and the roots of fresh potatoes!

Potatoes have been growing in the Andean highlands of Peru, northwest Bolivia, and Chile as far back as 13,000 years ago. In fact, there are currently over a whopping 4,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru! Having great value in Peruvian culture, cultivating this wide variety of potatoes helps to maintain ancestral traditions. Potatoes are also said to have properties that can relieve headaches and treat skin irritations. The word “papa” comes from the Indigenous Peruvian Quechua language, and is the word that I have most commonly heard used by Spanish speakers in the Americas when referring to potatoes. However, the English word “potato” comes from the Taíno name for the sweet potato: batata. This term was altered by Spanish colonizers when learning of the vegetable in the 1530s, renaming it patata, perhaps a combination of papa and batata.

It’s not uncommon for Indigenous communities to dry and preserve crops to allow for year-round consumption or provide a backup supply in case of crop failure. One traditional method of preserving potatoes in some Quechua communities is to freeze-dry them using the cold of the Andes, a practice that dates back to pre-Incan times. These potatoes, known as chuño, can be rehydrated in soups or ground into flour, and can be stored for over ten years! Due to climate change, this ancestral method of preserving potatoes is at risk. What once took two nights to freeze-dry the crop can now take up to two weeks.

The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in the 1500s, and Ireland was one country that came to rely on the vegetable for sustenance. When a fungus spread rapidly over their crop in 1845, the Irish Potato Famine resulted in the death of an estimated 1 million people. Great Britain did little to help with the tragedy, and the people heavily relied on what we now call mutual aid. Just 16 years earlier, the Native American Choctaw were one of the nations that experienced the violent displacement known as the Trail of Tears. When they heard of the Irish famine, they sent a significant donation of $170 (today’s equivalent of over $5000). In a recent reciprocal act of solidarity with Native Americans, Irish folks have created a GoFundMe to support Navajo and Hopi reservations to aid COVID-19 pandemic relief.

An affordable vegetable, potatoes are full of vitamins such as Vitamin C, Potassium, Vitamin B6, Iron, and other vital nutrients such as Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fiber. They are naturally low in sodium and free of fat and cholesterol, and are 110 calories per serving. If the full spectrum of nutrient intake is the goal (particularly dietary fiber), consider consumption with the peels. However, the majority of the Vitamin C and Potassium are on the inside. Potassium-rich and low in sodium foods such as potatoes may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Potatoes are also decent candidates for grocery gardening or regrowing plants from veggies bought at the store. Consider regrowing potatoes (preferably organic) in buckets or bags if they begin to sprout! Some other potato-like vegetables include oca and camote. Oca is another type of colorful tuber that originates from the Andes and looks like bumpy, fingerling potatoes. They have a sweetness to them and are used in both sweet and savory cooking. Camote, or sweet potatoes, share many nutrients with potatoes but are not actually in the potato family. They are a part of the morning glory family, but let’s save that for another planting lesson!

While attending an artist residency in Peru, my favorite dish was called causa. Causa is a delicious Peruvian potato-based meal made with mashed potatoes seasoned with aji amarillo paste. Plant-based fillings include avocado slices or vegetable salad, layered in a beautiful trifle-like presentation. One of my favorite potatoes is papa púrpuras, or the purple-blue varieties that were eaten by Incan royalty. As the potato has traveled the world, there are an infinite amount of recipes that span geographies and cultures. As a vegan Tejana, my go-to taqueria meal is papas rancheras on corn tortillas. So here are some things to consider: What’s your favorite type of potato? What are some well-known potato-based meals in your culture? Lastly, how did the potato make its way to your geography so that you and your community may enjoy them today?

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