Spud Sunday: Wild Spuds

Woodland at Farnham Estate

Irish woodland: beech trees abound but spuds, not so much

This weekend found me foraging about in the wilds of Co. Cavan (or perhaps the not-so-wilds, given that I was in the rather lovely surroundings of Farnham Estate). While my walk in the Cavan woods turned up all sorts of things (and I will report in full at a later date), potatoes were, unsurprisingly, not one of them. Though I am of a naturally optimistic bent when it comes to spuds (as you might, by now, have noticed), the truth is that there is very little chance of me (or anyone else) finding truly wild potatoes in this country – and the odd stray tuber that has escaped the harvest and sprouted anew doesn’t really count.

If I were to travel to Peru or Bolivia, on the other hand, it would be a different story. Though it would, no doubt, require a whole other level of both foraging and high altitude survival skills (not to mention a smattering of Spanish), it is there that I would find most of the estimated 200 or so wild species of potato, ancestors of Solanum tuberosum tuberosum – the sub-species of potato that includes all of the spuds that we know, love and eat, from the Rooster to the Russet, and all varieties in between.

No domesticated food crop has so large a clan of extant wild ancestors.

And those wild spuds, as James Lang goes on to describe in his book, Notes of a Potato Watcher, are a hardy lot: “A wild potato is a survivor that has kept its heritage alive without domestication. It has withstood a thousand droughts and El Niño rains; has reproduced despite the weevil and the tuber moth; has lived with viruses, laughed at late blight and out distanced bacterial wilt. Wild potatoes are thus a treasure trove of robust genetic traits.” Lang notes that Peruvian breeder and taxonomist, Carlos Ochoa, did much to seek out, identify and classify the various wild potato species still in existence, and many of these are now in the collection of Lima’s CIP (International Potato Centre) in Peru, along with the seven other species of potato still commonly cultivated by Andean farmers and not found elsewhere.

South American Potatoes

South American Potatoes, from Peru's International Potato Centre:
they may look pretty wild, but the spuds on this display board - whether bulbous, crescent-shaped,
or deeply indented - are among those still cultivated by Andean farmers

Sadly, from a purely stomach-driven point of view, wild South American potatoes tend to be an inedible sort. That means that they won’t be contending for Master Mash or Next Top Roastie anytime soon, and even if I could find them in the wild, there would be little point in boiling up some water to cook them. They are clearly, however, of great interest from a genetic point of view – with disease-tolerant traits and a knack for survival that their domesticated cousins would find rather useful – so they feed something that is entirely more important, the breeding programmes that will re-introduce potatoes to their wild side and help them to persist and thrive for many generations to come.

Sarvari Research Trust

If you want to lend support to one such potato breeding programme, you can contribute to the Sárvári Trust’s crowdfunding appeal to support the development of their latest blight-resistant potato. The research trust, based in Wales, breeds non-GM, blight-resistant potatoes, known as Sarpo varieties, by crossing domesticated potatoes with some of those wild Solanum species that show high resistance to blight in foliage and tubers.

They have a promising new seedling and are looking for support to fund the extensive testing required before the potato can achieve National List status in the UK and thus be made more generally available. Given the hoo-hah that we’ve seen in Ireland this year, with Teagasc getting the go-ahead for field trials of GM potatoes, this may be of more than a passing interest to some of you. Details here.

Comments
  • Dear Daily Spud, I swore I wasn’t going to be the first to comment, but so much for restraint. I completely understand the yearning for your search for the origins and heritage of the noble spud. Although the native spud and the Irish spud are different in many ways, they share a common heritage that is essentially spud. Really a good analogy to explain how we American’s of Irish descent like to feel our connection to your beautiful birthplace, very different but still connected.
    Cheers,
    Brian.

  • So much for restraint indeed Brian, and I very much like that idea of being different but connected – diverse members of a big, sprawling family but all essentially spud :)

  • I really liked your Spud Sunday and not just because you gave us a great plug for our fundraising to allow us to continue to develop our line of blight resistant spuds. We look forward to more Irish backers joining our crowd and participating in our research efforts. We already have a few linked to the Spuds Ireland project and we have an increasing number of growers over there that appreciate our varieties and not just for their blight resistance (so welcome this year). Many thanks Daily Spud from Celts over here in Wales. We are now hooked on your blog. Goodonyou! and Thankyou

  • Thanks for the kind words and very happy to give the Sarvari Trust fundraising a mention – it strikes me as a very worthy cause and I wish you the best of luck with it. I’m familiar with the Spuds Ireland work and though I didn’t get a chance to try any of the Sarpo varieties this year, it’s definitely something I plan to try in future.

  • Looks like I just found my new favourite blog! I’m due to write up Parmentier soon, which is how I found you, but you’ve covered that ground so well already… I love that you go into such depth, and what a topic! Disappointed not to see a recipe for Poitín yet though :)

  • Hi there – the operative word in your last sentence is yet :) – just goes to show what a vast topic I’ve chosen! I do have some material on poitin and I will get to it in due course, I promise…

  • what a montage of spuds

  • Well yes indeed Tom, and that’s only a tiny fraction of the range of spuds out there

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