The vegetable we might never have known about

Potato Field

It’s almost impossible to imagine Sunday lunch, a braai or a weeknight meal without potatoes. Mashed, baked or roasted, potatoes are delicious and a good source of vitamin B6, potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fibre and pantothenic acid. They also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity. The potato, from the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop after rice, wheat, and maize. The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes around 8,000 BC to 5,000 B.C.

But, as legend will have it, we nearly didn’t get to have this delicious vegetable.

In his book ‘The Nature Doctor’ Swiss naturopath Alfred Vogel tells an amusing story of how potatoes were discovered in Europe:

“Because potatoes belong to the same family as the deadly nightshade, our forefathers had some rather unfortunate experiences with them when they were first brought to Europe. No one knew this strange plant native to Peru’s highlands.

It was as late as the sixteenth century when Spanish sailors and Sir Walter Raleigh first brought potatoes to Europe, with the intention of cultivating them as a food on the European continent. They gave them to their friends but did not explain anything about the new plant. Why not? Well, it often happens, does it not, that someone knows something but does not tell it to another person simply because he thinks that he will be aware of it already. That is what happened with the potato. No one who planted the tubers seemed to realise that the unknown plant was a member of the deadly nightshade family and had poisonous properties.

PotatoesNeither could anyone have imaged that it was the tubers themselves that served for food and not the round green berries growing on the plant. In fact, no one took any notice of the actual potatoes. Of course, the result of eating the berries brought only trouble, because anyone who tried the new vegetable from overseas soon suffered from diarrhoea and vomiting.

The story goes that, very upset and disappointed, some of those participating in one of the potato meals went and uprooted the plants, tops and all, and flung them onto a bonfire. Involuntarily they had also pulled out the potatoes attached to the roots. Meanwhile, these roasted nicely in the fire and one or two rolled out of the embers. In anger, someone stamped on them, but they smelled so appetising that the person picked one up. A little hesitant, he tried it and to his surprise it tasted as delicious as it smelled! So that was it! What they were to eat were not the green berries on the plant but the tubers that grew under the ground!

The mystery was solved and Europe had gained a new food, one that is not only a source of protein, starch and Vitamin C, but also a remedy.”