Some writers assert that potatoes were discovered by Sir Francis Drake in the South Seas, and others that Sir John Hawkins introduced them into England. It is evidently the sweet potato, or Battata da Terra, that is alluded to, and which was used in England as a delicacy before the introduction of our potato, and was imported in large quantities from Spain and the Canaries. These were supposed to possess invigorating qualities. Kissing comfits and other confections were made from them and from the eringo root. Falstaff says in the "Merry Wives of Windsor:"*
"Let it rain potatoes and hail kissing comfits".
The potato is in general use in France, Germany, and Holland; it was introduced into Sweden in 1726, but was little cultivated there till aided by a Royal edict three years after. It increased rapidly in Russia, and is grown in the East and West Indies.
Attempts have been made to grow the potato in Ceylon; it thrives only in one spot of the interior of the island, from whence the Governor's table is supplied. In China the progress of the potato has been very slow; its value does not appear to be appreciated in that country. The colonists of Australia, New Zealand, and Queensland cultivate the root largely.
Gerrard in his valuable and quaint old Herbal (1597) gives the following account of the potato: - "This plant (which is called of some sasa-rum Peruvianum, or skyrrets of Peru) is generally of us called potatus or potatoes. It hath long flexible branches trailing upon the ground like unto those of pompions, whereon arc set greene three-cornered leaves very like those of the wild cucumber. There is not any that have written of this plant, have said anything of the flowers; therefore I refer their description unto those that shall hereafter have further knowledge of the same.
"Yet have I had in my garden divers roots that have flourished unto the first approach of winter, and have grownc unto a great length of branches, but they brought forth no flowers at all; whether because the winter caused them to perish before their time of flowering or that they be barren of flowers I am not certain. The roots are many, thick, and knobby, like unto the roots of peonies, or rather the white asphodill joined together at the top into one head, in the manner of the skyrret, which being divided into divers parts and planted, do make a great increase, especially if the greatest roots be cut into divers goblets and planted in good fertile ground. The potatoes grow in India, Barbarie, Spaine, and other hot regions; of which I planted divers roots (which I bought at the Exchanget in London) in my garden, where they flourished until winter at which time they perished and rotted. It flourisheth till the end of September; at the first approach of great frosts the leaves together with the stalks do perish. The leaves of potatoes are hot and dry, as may evidently appear by the taste: the roots are of a temperate qualitie.
The potato roots are among the Spaniards, Italians, Indians, and many other nations ordinarie and common meat; which, no doubt, are of mighty and nourishing parts, and doe strengthen and comfort nature; whose nutriment is as it were a mean between flesh and fruit, but somewhat windie; yet being roasted in the embers they lose much of their windiness, especially being eaten sopped in wine. Of these roots may be made conserves no lesse toothsome, wholesome, and dainty, than of the flesh of quinces, and likewise those comfortable and delicate meats called in shops, morselliplacen-tidcp, and divers other such like.
* Act v. scene 3. † In the Calendar of State Papers relating to India, China, and Japan, is an entry referring to Billingsgate, November, 1621, where, amongst other necessaries, potatoes may be bought.
"These roots may serve as a ground or foundation whereon the cunning confectioner or sugar-baker may worke and frame many comfortable delicate conserves and restorative sweet-meats. They are used to be eaten rosted in the ashes. Some when they be so rosted infuse and sop them in wine: and others to give them the greater grace in eating do boile them with prunes and so eat them: likewise others dresse them (being first rosted) with oile, vinegar, and salt, every man according to his owne taste and liking".
Our old author adds a description of the Virginia potato as follows: - "Virginian Potato hath many hollow flexible branches trailing upon the ground, three-square, uneven, knotted, or kneed in sundry places at cer-taine distances; from the which knots commeth forth one great leafe made of divers leaves, some smaller, others greater, set together upon a fat middle rib by couples, of a swart greene colour tending to rednesse; the whole leafe resembling those of the winter-cresses, but much larger; in taste at the first like grasse, but afterwards sharp and nipping the tongue. From the bosome of which leaves come forth, long round slender foot-stalks, whereon grow very faire and pleasant floures, made of one entire whole leafe, which is folded or plaited in such strange sort, that it seems to be a floure made of fine sundry small leaves which cannot easily be perceived except the same be pulled open. The whole floure is of a light purple colour striped downe the middle of every fold or welt with a light shew of yellownesse, as if purple and yellow were mixed together. In the middle of the floure thrusteth forth a thicke flat pointall, as yellow as gold, with a small sharp green pricke or point in the midst thereof.
The fruit succeeds the floures, round as a ball, of the bignesse of a little Bullesse or wilde plumme, green at the first, and blacke when it is ripe, wherein is contained small white seed lesse than those of mustard. The root is thicke, fat, tuberous, not much differing either in shape, colour, or taste from the common potato, saving that the roots hereof are not so great nor long; some of them are as round as a ball, some oval or eggc-fashion, some longer and others shorter; the which knobby roots are fastened on to the stalks with an infinite number of threddy strings. It groweth naturally in America, where it was first discovered as reported Clusius, since which time I have receiued roots hereof from Virginia, otherwise called Norembega, which grow and prosper in my garden as in their owne native country. The leaves thrust forth of the ground in the beginning of May; the floures bud forth in August; the fruit is ripe in September. The temperature and vertues be referred to the common potato's being likewise a food, as also a meat for pleasure, equall in good-nesse and wholesomnesse to the same, being either rosted in the embers or boiled and eaten with oile, vinegar, and pepper, or dressed some other way by the hand of a skilfull cooke".
Lord Bacon writes soon after Gerrard, that "If potato-roots be set in a pot filled with earth, and then the pot with earth be set likewise within the ground some two or three inches, the rootes will grow greater than ordinary. The cause may be, for that having earth enough within the pot to nourish them, and then being stopped by the bottom of the pot from putting strings downward, they must needs grow greater in breadth and thicknesse. And it may be that all seed roots, potted and so set in earth, will prosper the better." - Professor Bradley in his work on "New Improvements of Planting and Gardening," (1718), says, after describing other tuberous plants - "Potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes are roots of less note than any I have yet mentioned; but as they are not without their admirers, so I shall not pass by the method of their culture in silence. The potato rather loves a sandy than a strong soil: I have seen them do well in both, but I have observed that the roots knot much better and are sweeter in the sand".
There have been some prejudices against the potato, on account of its being a species of the Solatium, or Nightshade. In Burgundy its use was interdicted, as it was deemed a poisonous and mischievous root, and among other evils was accused of occasioning leprosy and dysentery. In France there was also considerable opposition to the "Pomme de Terre." The philosophy of the age was unable to dissipate this until Louis XV. wore a bunch of the flowers on a day of festivity in the midst of his court. The people then acknowledged its usefulness, and its cultivation as an article of food became universal. The value of the potato has been no less appreciated by our own Queen, who on one occasion appeared before her court adorned with its blossoms.
The potato undoubtedly is amongst the greatest blessings that the soil produces, every part of it being available for use. A bright light, so powerful as to enable the bystander to read by it, issues from the common potato when in a state of putrefaction; and Professor Lindley mentions that an officer on guard at barracks, near Strasburg, during night, thought that the building was on fire; and, upon examination, found that the vivid light which had alarmed him proceeded from a heap of potatoes contained in a cellar. The apples, when ripe, foment and yield vinegar; the stalks produce a cottony flax; also potash; its tubercles made into pulp are a substitute for soap in bleaching. In Sweden sugar is extracted from the roots of the potato, which also yield a sweet but not strong spirit, which is so plentiful in that country and Norway as not even to be charged for at meals. The liquor obtained in making potato-starch will clean silk, woollen, and cotton articles without damaging them; and is also useful in cleaning paint. The fecula, or substance, of the potato answers the purpose of tapioca, and the best souffles are made with it.
Hair powder has also been prepared from the potato farina, and size also obtained from this root, as well as yeast fit for the use of either the baker or brewer.
Waxy potatoes contain but little nutriment; when mealy, one thousand parts contain two hundred parts of starch (used by the French bakers as flour, and sold by druggists as arrowroot), forty parts of gluten, twenty parts of sugar, and the rest leguminous fibre and some of the alkaline earths.
Horses will eat potatoes; they are said to cool the blood, and when used raw to be a remedy for swelled legs. For fattening cattle, sheep, and pigs, mixed with other food they are very nutritious. Potatoes are a valuable article for rearing poultry of all kinds; they will feed and fatten on them with much less grain in half the time than on corn or even meal alone. Potatoes boiled and mashed, and mixed with meal, are excellent food for dogs.