This section is from the book "The Potato: A Compilation of Information from Every Available Source", by Eugene H. Grubb, W. S. Guilford. Also available from Amazon: The Potato: A Compilation Of Information From Every Available Source.
In Common with many other food plants, the early history of the potato does not appear to be especially authentic; but there are some points on which most writers agree.
The potato (Solanum tuberosum) - French, pomme de terre; German, kartoffel; Dutch, aarap-pel; Danish, jordepeeren: Italian, patata; Spanish, patatas; American slang, spuds, murphies; English slang, tatties - belongs to the same family as tobacco, belladonna, tomato, egg plant, and capsicum. There are 1,600 species in the family, and but six bear tubers. The wild potato produces seed balls from the flowers, and this is true now of some vines in the valleys of the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The potato is a native of mountain valleys in South America very similar to, if not identical with, conditions in Colorado and southern Idaho. In its native home it grows at an altitude of 4,000 to 6,000 feet. The potato was probably carried to Spain by returning explorers in the sixteenth century. It was in turn taken to Florida by other Spanish explorers, from there to Virginia, and from that colony to the continent of Europe.
It is reported that when the Spanish discovered South America - Chile and Peru - they found the potato an important article of food.
In "Pictorial Practical Potato Growing," by Walter P. Wright and Edward J. Castle, and published by Cassel & Company, Limited, London, is the following:
Italy would seem to be the first country to give special attention to the newcomer, an Italian named Cardano being early associated with it. The year 1586 is generally admitted to be the date of introduction to Great Britain, Sir Thomas Herriot, a companion to Sir Walter Raleigh, being its introducer. Some authorities are inclined to give the credit of its introduction into Britain to Admiral Drake, who is stated to have sent planters of Virginia especially to bring over the tubers.
Be that as it may, it seems certain that the first potatoes known in Great Britain came from Virginia, and it is equally certain that they were first planted in Ireland, near Cork. Switzerland, France, and Germany were the next countries to welcome Solarium tuberosum, but nowhere was it regarded as of particularly high value for food. The famous French botanist, Olivier de Serres, deemed it worthy of a special chapter in a book he published in 1600. To another Frenchman, M. Fraizier, the tuber owes its popular name, it having first been called pomme de terre - apple of the earth - in a book dealing with that gentleman's voyage to the coasts of Chile. This was in 1716. To a third Frenchman, M. Parmentier, the potato owes its popularization as an article of human food, though the statement that Parmentier had anything to do with its introduction is erroneous. Louis XVI seconded the efforts of Parmentier by ordering a large tract of land to be planted with potatoes, and himself wearing a flower of the plant in his buttonhole.
In England the potato at first met with little favor, its relationship to the deadly nightshade causing it to be regarded with suspicion. Sir Walter Raleigh endeavored to interest Queen Elizabeth in the newcomer, and even succeeded to the extent of getting a dish of cooked tubers placed on the royal table. Courtesy forbade the guests to refuse to partake of the new dish, but their dislike was so obvious, and so assiduously did they circulate tales regarding the poisonous nature of the tubers, that we do not read of the experiment being repeated. In Ireland the potato met with a better reception, and its culture was far advanced and understood in that country before England took the matter seriously in hand. Not until 1663 do we read of potato culture becoming at all general in England, but in that year it received a great impetus, owing to the efforts of the Royal Society, which were prompted, it is said, by a recognition of the food value of the tubers in time of famine.
The original tubers would appear to have been round, and about the size of a large walnut. Herriot called the potato Openwak, and Gerarde, who pictured the plant in his famous 'Herbal' in 1597, gave it the scientific name of Bata Virginia. To Gaspard Bauhin, a celebrated botanist of Basle, belongs the credit of giving the plant its present and universally recognized scientific name, Solarium tuberosum. This was about 1590, and it does not appear that the name then bestowed has ever been disputed. There are at least six tuber-bearing species of Solanum, but in the opinion of Mr. J. G. Baker, the famous Kew botanist, all the varieties in cultivation have originated from one species - S. tuberosum.
When once the real value of the potato was recognized its progress into every country of Europe seems to have been very rapid, though Scotland seems to have disregarded it until the middle of the eighteenth century, when famine and great destitution forced the claims of the new improved tuber upon the Scottish farmers. So rapidly did it grow in popularity that in 1747 we read of 700 bushels of potatoes being exported from Carolina, while in 1840, the year of the potato's first appearance in the United States census, the crop is given as 108,298,060 bushels.
The first real check to potato cultivation was received in 1842, when the now well-known and dreaded potato disease, Phytophthora infestans, (late blight) made its appearance in Germany. Soon after this it was recorded from Canada and the United States; in 1845 the Isle of Wight, and thence England, felt its presence; and by 1846 it was known almost all over Europe. A famine in Ireland followed, and for a while it looked as though the potato was threatened with extinction. Fortunately, however, the efficacy of sulphate of copper and lime in combating the disease was discovered, and this, under the name of Bordeaux mixture, has greatly helped to preserve the potato as we know it."
Mr. Arthur W. Sutton, Reading, England, in a lecture before the Royal Horticultural Society, presents the following very interesting facts: