Potatoes in the 1600s

At this time, root vegetables were common in England - parsnip, cauliflower, beetroot, cauliflower, but not the potato, which was regarded as an exotic vegetable for luxury use. It was not suitable for general cultivation because its yields were low. The diet of the poor was mainly vegetables and milk based products in any case: flummery was a dish of boiled oatmeal and bran; fruenty was boiled wheat in milk flavoured with spices, and there are plenty more examples. Fresh meat was only available in the summer, winter supplies being heavily salted and stored.

There was much suspicion by the poor about the worthiness of potatoes as a food. Although the tubers appeared to be fine for eating, the plants had highly poisonous leaves. The tubers went green and bitter on exposure to light, and much illness and sickness was (wrongly) attributed to eating them.

The potato was known in most of the countries of central Europe, but only as a garden crop. In spite of a chronic lack of decent food, Europe's peasants would not cultivate it. Potatoes were generally grown by botanists, often in the gardens of their wealthy patrons, but not by ordinary people.

Botanists gave the following description - the potato of 1600 was an odd-looking plant about the size of a small bush. It had thick, hairy stems and profuse green foliage; each branch which was produced from a spring planting had a few flowers which released a rich perfume. The blossoms were a striking bluish purple with red stamens, forming angular, five-pointed stars about an inch across. Then came clusters of green berries which turned either white or black.

The roots by this time were a fibrous network to which were attached tubers. They had rough skins, were red or yellowish, and pitted. They were edible, and if sown, they would form new plants.

Ordinary people had not come across anything like this before. Their experience was that plants reproduced by seeds, not tubers. There were other suspicious associations too - the berries resembled the mandrake's and deadly nightshade's. (In fact the potato belongs to the family SOLANACEAE, whose members include tomatoes, eggplant, sweet pepper, deadly nightshade, mandrake, tobacco and henbane.)

Fevers and infectious diseases were thought to come from inflamed blood. The tuberous roots were said to increase "evil blood", like garlic, and so they might help the spread of disease. Other nonsense abounded: around 1620, a rumour arose that potato plants caused leprosy. Why the people decided on leprosy is a mystery, and in those days, it's likely there was no shortage of skin disease. But potatoes were the food of the rich, and perhaps it was just a criticism of something which they thought they would never be able to afford.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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