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Solanum tuberosum (potato)

Potato is widely cultivated for its edible tubers, which are used to produce a variety of products including chips, crisps and vodka.

Solanum tuberosum (potato) tuber

Solanum tuberosum (potato)

Species information

Solanum tuberosum L.

potato, common potato, white potato, Irish potato, European potato

Not considered to be threatened; widespread in cultivation.

Montane (highlands).

Food and drink, fodder.

Potatoes contain toxic compounds including solanine, although levels of this are low in commercial varieties and poisoning is rare.

Taxonomy

Equisetopsida Magnoliidae Asteranae Solanales Solanaceae Genus: Solanum

About this species

Potato is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), aubergine or eggplant (S. melongena), chilli pepper (Capsicum annuum) and petunias (Petunia species).

Considered to be the fourth most important food crop (after wheat, maize and rice), potato is cultivated in temperate and subtropical regions across the world.

Solanum andigenum Juz. & Bukasov, Solanum kesselbrenneri Juz. & Bukasov, Solanum subandigena Hawkes (A full list of synonyms is available on The Plant List)

Solanum

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Geography and distribution

Solanum tuberosum is thought to have originated in the Andes of South America. It was probably first domesticated in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago.

It is widespread in cultivation, with major producers including China, Russia, Poland, the USA, Ukraine, Germany and India.

Solanum tuberosum (potato) herbarium specimen

Dried specimen of Solanum tuberous from Kew’s Herbarium

Description

Overview: An erect, perennial, aromatic herb up to 1 m tall. Sparsely hairy, with tuber-bearing underground stolons (vegetative shoots). Stems erect, succulent, winged, branching.

Leaves: Divided into 3–5 pairs of leaflets.

Flowers: White to pink, purple or blue, about 2.5 cm in diameter with yellow anthers. Borne in a many-flowered, axillary inflorescence. Each flower is borne on a flower stalk (pedicel) 2–3 cm long.

Fruits: A succulent (but inedible), spherical, yellow-green to purple berry, up to 4 cm in diameter.

Thousands of cultivars are available, which vary in characters such as tuber size, shape and skin colour.

Uses

Potatoes are a major staple and have a prominent place in many national cuisines. They are an almost complete foodstuff, providing all the essential nutrients, with the exception of calcium and vitamins A and D (which can be obtained by consuming them with milk).

Potatoes are a good source of carbohydrate and vitamin C and provide about 25% of the vitamin C in the European diet.

The diverse and adaptable tubers are boiled, roasted, baked, fried and steamed as a vegetable. Potatoes are a key ingredient in many soups, stews, pies and other oven-baked dishes.

They are processed into a diverse range of foodstuffs including chips (French fries), crisps (chips), potato bread (such as boxty), potato flour and dried potato. They are a common source of starch, glucose and dextrin.

Solanum tuberosum (potato) 3tubers

Potato is cultivated for its edible tubers.

Potatoes have long been frozen, soaked and dried to form a product known as chuño, which has played an important role in the diet of the population of the highland and lowland Andes of South America.

Potatoes are used to produce alcoholic beverages including vodka and schnapps. They are also used as animal feed.

All green parts of the plant, including tubers, that have been exposed to light contain poisonous glycoalkaloids (solanines), so tubers with green patches should not be eaten. Overconsumption of solanine by pregnant women is alleged to promote spina bifida in babies.

This species at Kew

Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Solanum tuberosum are held in Kew’s Herbarium where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details of some of these specimens can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.

Models of various potatoes, samples of potato starch, dextrin, tubers, potato flour, fruits, rice paper made with potato flour, and non-perishable food made from tubers are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

References and credits

Edmonds, J. E., Vorontsova, M. S. & Knapp, S. (2012) Solanaceae. In: Flora of Tropical East Africa, ed. H. Beentje, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1999). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Volume 4 (R to Z). Macmillan Reference, London.

Kiple, K. F. & Ornelas, K. C. (eds) (2000). The Cambridge World History of Food, Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

PBI Solanum Project (2010). Solanaceae Source. Available online (accessed 20 May 2013).

Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. (2009). The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Kew science editors: Emma Tredwell and William Milliken
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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