Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The P Stands for Peru, the O Comes from Bolivia

I knew about the nightshade plants, family of Solanaceae, while I was still a child. It was the time of the transition from World War II to peace. We were in Germany then, emigrants from Hungary. I was learning German, and the word, Nachtschatten Pflanzen, made some big impression on me. At a certain age one thinks about new words—and sometimes that habit becomes permanent. There was an oddity about shadows at night, something oddly eerie.

I’ve always associated nightshades with what we call Latin America today. It wasn’t until the Internet made quick research rather easy that I learned, in my seventies, that Solanacea are found on every continent except Antarctica. The South/Central American imprint in my mind comes from the fact that these plants reached their greatest diversity there. All those we naturally associate with the family—tobacco, tomato, potato, chili and bell peppers—originate from that realm. Of that list, certainly these days, tobacco alone has a sinister reputation, but for me they all spell delight. The peppers, I think, are not routinely so classified in the popular mind. And the other day we’d come to wonder whether the potato belonged there. I thought so, but asked how certain I was, I said that I was very strongly inclined to think so, but I wasn’t dead certain.

Well, the potato comes from Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia, its domestication dating back a good while by any measure, between 8000 and 5000 BC. Another thing that happens over extended periods of time, in a human being, is that memory decays. It was only after learning this, again, that I remembered once studying the almost bewildering varieties of potatoes that had once flourished in South America. Of these the common types available at Kroger are the minutest tip of an iceberg—but represent the great mass of all potatoes grown.

Looked at through a geological lens, the potato has done rather well considering the remoteness of its arising at such great distances from the center of human population density. A snapshot taken  in 2011 indicates that China grew the most potatoes in that year, followed by India and Russia—representing 43 percent of the world’s crop, 374,400,000 metric tons. Pretty good showing for a plant growing in nightshade.

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