Heirloom Potato Varieties Make Great Baked Potatoes

Members of the Solanaceae family, heirloom potato varieties are tasty in any recipe or as simple baked potatoes.

| January/February 2013

Potato French Fingerling

The French Fingerling is sometimes known as Nosebag and is a late-maturing, low-yielding variety.

Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

Potatoes are the most widely consumed vegetable in the United States and, after corn, wheat and rice, the fourth most consumed food crop in the world. While the West has been the biggest producer of potatoes, that distinction now belongs to the developing world with China leading the pack.

In the United States, per capita consumption fluctuates and is currently on the decline, but we each still manage to wolf down around 130 pounds of potatoes each year. However, when it comes to really enjoying potatoes, that distinction goes to Belarus, where 350 pounds are eaten per person annually. In 2003, the United States ranked 38th in per-capita consumption, trailing Russia, the other countries of the former Soviet Union, England, and many more.

All in the family

The potato, Solanum tuberosum, is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, which includes many poisonous species and some common edible crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and tomatillos, all of which are fruits. Other edible solanaceous fruits include wonderberry, Turkish eggplant, tree tomato and naranjilla.

The exact origin of the potato remains controversial today. The domesticated potato had its origins possibly between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of South America, probably in Peru and Bolivia in the Lake Titicaca region. While some archeological evidence points to an even earlier consumption of wild species, many authorities believe that solid evidence of domesticated varieties does not occur until 4,000 years ago. In the Andes region, there are literally thousands of varieties in all different shapes and colors, and here is the greatest diversity of both wild species and cultivated varieties.

What we do know is that Spanish explorers introduced the Andean variety of potatoes to their homeland by 1570, and soon thereafter the potato reached southern Europe. The plant quickly spread across much of Europe, and it was illustrated in many of the 16th-century herbals.

Cultivation of heirloom potato varieties

Gradually farmers began cultivating potatoes and creating new varieties. Northern European farmers selected varieties for early harvest, adaptability to the long-day summer conditions, and the climate.

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