Potato – a popular root vegetable

Potato Solanum tuberosum has its cultural origin from the Andean Plateau on the border between Bolivia and Peru. It has been cultivated there for thousands of years. The Potato came to Europe in the end of the 16th century. It is documented to have been grown in the Uppsala University Botanical Garden by Olof Rudbeck the Older in 1658.

Which part do we eat?

All above ground parts of the potato plant are poisonous. That also goes for the fruit that forms under the right circumstances after cross pollination.

The potato plant forms stem tubers below ground. They are vegetative dispersal units, thickened parts of the shoot system with several buds (potato eyes). The tubers store energy from the growing season in the form of starch (up to 18%).

Every potato tuber have the ability to form a new potato plant the following year. Some tubers (confusingly called seed potatoes) are kept in cool storage until next season.

Many cultivated varieties

The two varieties ’King Edward’ and ’Bintje’ used to completely dominate in Swedish grocery stores. They are very susceptible to disease and require a lot of pesticides. Nowadays, more resistent varieties have become more popular. In Europe alone, there are more than 1700 registered varieties.

Potatoes from seed

When you use seed potatoes, i.e. the tubers, the new potato plant will be genetically identical to last year’s because they are clones. In order to create new varieties in plant breeding you have to pollinate flowers with pollen from other varieties and collect the resulting seeds. True seed sown potatoes are most often of poor quality, but sometimes the breeders end up with something useful.

The History of Potatoes in Sweden

It took a long time for potato to become widely popular as a food source in Sweden. During its first fifty years, it was grown as an appreciated ornamental in castle gardens and at mansions of the upper classes. During the first half of the 18thcentury, Jonas Alströmer made large efforts to promote potatoes. He was convinced about its potential as staple food.

First when the countess Eva Ekeblad (born De la Gardie) started to experiment on how to make starch, schnapps, and wig powder from potatoes, something started to happen. Potato became more commonly grown. By time it found its way to our dinner tables. Eva Ekeblad’s work and the spreading of her results were considered so important that she was elected as the first female member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Fun facts

  • In addition to poatato, Olof Rudbeck the elder grew tomato, eggplant, and chili in Uppsala already 1658. Probably he was the one who introduced these species to Sweden.
  • Potato was initially called “Peruvian nightshade” and tomato “love apples”.
  • Chili was used as a medicinal plant in the 18thcentury, for example to supress coughing.
  • Carl Linnaeus was doubtful regarding potatoes and tomatoes as food, since he knew that they are related to so many poisonous species.
  • Linnaeus smoked the pipe, or “drank tobacco” as it was called at the time. He knew about its harmful effects, but considered it the only relief for his ongoing pain from bad teeth.
  • Initially ketchup did not contain tomatoes, but was a fermented soya sauce from Indonesia, which English seamen found tasty and spread around the globe. In the US one started to make the sauce based on tomatoes and sugar.
  • Fresh tomatoes did not become common in Swedish grocery stores until the mid 20thcentury. This was in part because Swedes now began to travel to the Mediterranean and became acquainted with the red delicacies.

From everyday food to popular restaurant dish

Spud, beloved tuber

Potatoes have been the basis of our everyday food since the early 19thcentury. However, since the 1970s our consumption of potatoes has been reduced. Often we chose pasta, rice, bulgur or other basic goods for our dinners. The total area used for cultivating potatoes in Sweden has decreased by more than 50 % between the years 1970 and 2005.

Despite of that, we consume 56 kilos per person and year. Older people generally eat more potatoes than younger people, men eat more than women and young people consumes more fried and deep fried potatoes.

Lately potatoes have started to possess a central role within restaurant kitchens and potatoes different flavours and abilities are now revalued. Different varieties of potatoes are widely requested and more frequently potatoes play the main role of the plate.

The future of potatoes

Potato starch is useful for many purposes. During 2016 a new subspecies was presented in which the starch is built by a larger amount of straight molecule chains. This entails increased possibilities to produce biologically decomposable plastics. So keep an eye on cutlery, mugs and bags made of potatoes. They decompose in the compost within two months.