Irish Potatoes-From Famine to Feast

San Antonio Express News
Gardening Etc.
Sunday, February 5, 2005

By David Rodriguez

The potato famine took more Irish lives than all the wars with the English put together. Irish deaths between 1846 through 1851 top way over one million. Many more Irish immigrants died fleeing the famine on ships that were headed towards the United States.

The potato, (Solanum tuberosum) is native to high altitudes of the Andes and has served as an important cultivated food since early civilization. European explorers found potatoes growing from Columbia to Chile and eventually introduced them to Spain. The Spaniards called them a Atruffle,@ believing them to be some type of underground fungus. Several years passed, and the crop was introduced to other European countries. The crop did not become an initial success, because of non-adaptive cultivars and being in the nightshade family. People believed the plants to be poisonous or even responsible for diseases like scrofula and leprosy.

The starchy tubers of the potato were originally introduced into Ireland by Spanish fisherman. Of all the countries that grew potatoes, Ireland provided the most ideal environment. Abundant production for two centuries supported substantial population gains in that country. These large, tuber-types were so productive that government and church leaders promoted their cultivation into a staple food. For example, a small tenant farmer, accustomed to a meager food supply, could feed at that time, their entire family on an acre of potatoes.

The Irish, typically only grew one type of potato. This is unique considering that over 5000 kinds of potatoes (derived from many species) were grown at that time, from the potato’s native homeland in the Andes of South America. Late blight disease (Phytophthora infestans) devastated North American potato fields around 1835. This disease is believed to have originated in Peru. The pathogen then crossed the Atlantic Ocean and hit the European continent with much force. The disease devastated the Irish potato fields in 1845, resulting in total crop failures. This started the Irish potato famine of Europe and the greatest Irish migration into the young United States. Today, this white potato is referred to as the “Irish” potato, and is America’s most popular and nutritious vegetable. We can not only thank the Irish for this vegetable, but also all their historical contributions to this great country of ours.

Potatoes are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and full of good nutrients. It has enough food value to sustain life; just ask the Irish of the 17th century. The potato was the cheapest crop one could grow at that time, and the potato remained as a staple crop and the main diet item. Potatoes were commonly consumed by the old Irish, up to three times a day. The fiber derived from potatoes is a plus in a healthy diet. Fiber becomes an essential and very important factor in proper digestion of the body human. Remember, fiber gives us something for nothing, being a great component as a natural laxative, while filling you up at the same time.

Growing “Irish” potatoes here in Bexar county is quite easy. Remember, there are many varieties grown throughout the United States. Russet varieties are the most utilized by commercial growers and the most consumed variety in this country. Russet varieties are not readily grown here due to a low yields in our heavy, clay soil; therefore russet varieties are not recommended for Bexar County. Look for these varieties that have done well locally, and that are readily available to the consumer, such as Red La Soda, Red Pontiac or White Irish Cobbler and White Kennebec. These varieties typically will not be as large as the grocery store Russet, but are very rich in fiber content/nutrient and excellent for stews and other dishes. Visit your local nursery at this time and purchase seed potatoes.

In late winter, early spring or mid fall, large seed potatoes can be cut in half or quartered. Dust the cut area (2-3 ounce size) with dusting sulpher to prevent the rotting of the young spud. Smaller seed potato tubers (2-3 inches in size) should not be cut — simply plant it whole. Make sure that at all times a “swell” or prominent bud is always visible and planted “eye” up. Drop individual pre-cut or whole seed potatoes into well prepared soil 10-12 inches deep with 12 inch individual spacing between tubers. Heavily apply to the bottom of the intended planting area, a good phosphate additive (i.e. rock phosphate). The extra phosphate at planting will help increase the size, quality and overall production of the tubers. Cover with a six inch layer of a good grade compost. Side dress plants three to four weeks after they emerge with 21-0-0 and every two to three weeks with a preferred water soluble fertilizer. Later, mound another four inches of compost once plants have emerged to six inches in height. Most of these potato varieties are ready to be harvested within 80 days. Also, another good indicator for harvest is when the tops of the plants start looking tired. Reach into your enriched planting area and remove the largest ones first as well as any desired “New” potatoes which are small ones mainly used in stews, etc. Leave smaller tubers to mature bigger and mound up again with enriched compost. Multiple harvests are possible. Simply wash, wipe down and let tubers dry before preparation for consumption. For further information and diagrams consider logging in at

So there you have some of the origins and history of the “Irish” potato as well as simple planting instructions of recommended varieties for Bexar County. We all now that there are many, many ways of preparing potatoes. I know, I have probably tried them all! How about this one.

Yummy Potatoes
2 tablespoons butter 2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup chopped onion 2 cup peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes
Chicken stock as needed 1 pound Red Pontiac potatoes, sliced 1/4″
Salt, pepper and Italian parsley or Cilantro to taste

Heat butter in saucepan adding paprika and onions. Cook onions till soft, then add tomatoes and the red potatoes. Add a small amount of chicken stock to cover potatoes. Then a small amount of salt, so liquid will reduce. Simmer potatoes until cooked and excess liquid is evaporated or absorbed. Gently stir. Season to taste with pepper and salt. Garnish with cilantro or Italian Parsley. Eat up and enjoy, feeds up to four.

Remember, learn and have fun!

David Rodriguez, County Extension Agent-Horticulture, Bexar County. For more information, call (210) 467-6575 or visit our County Extension website at


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