The part of the potato plant, Solanum tuberosum, that is eaten is called a tuber. A tuber is a bud at the end of an underground stem, not a root, that becomes enlarged. Native to Peru and Chile, the potato had been eaten by the people living in that region for 7,000 years. The people of the Andes ate cooked tubers, and they also dried potatoes and ground them into flour. After the Americas were discovered by Europeans, potatoes were introduced into Europe and then later into North and Central America, where they had not been previously known by the native Americans who lived there. Many of the types that are common today were known by the Andean people, who also had blue, purple, and yellow varieties.
When the potato was first introduced into Europe, it was believed to cause diseases and to be toxic. In fact, there are toxins in the potato plant, but only in its leaves and flowers-not in the tuber. Potatoes became a dietary staple in Europe sometime during the eighteenth century. Its hardiness (it grows at high elevations in the Andes in a cold climate) helped to establish the potato as a crop that would help prevent famine.
Historically, the potato blight in Ireland during the mid-eighteenth century was the cause of a famine that led to mass emigration by poor Irish peasants to North America between 1846 and 1851. The destruction of the potato crop in Ireland, the staple for the mass of poor Irish, was caused by a fungus disease. Potatoes are also vulnerable to insect infestations.
Today various insecticides are used to control diseases that attack potato plants, and efforts have been made to produce a strain of potato that is resistant to disease. Experiments with hybrids is one avenue of research. More than 300 million tons of potatoes are produced around the world, with Russia, China, Poland, and the United States as the biggest producers of potatoes.
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