Potatoes are thought to be only native to South Africa, which holds the greatest diversity of wild varieties of potatoes. Botanists agree that this is probably the best indication of origin for a particular species. Specifically, the Andean region – with so many species of tuberous plants growing wild in Peru, Ecuador and Chile. The name potato probably comes from the Indian word for the plant that bears it – patata, or pata.
At first, explorers found Peruvians Indians to be preserving potatoes by drying them in the sun – a practice still found today. It is thought as the potato gained importance in their diet, they improved upon the wild potato of Peru – which is small and quite bitter. Pre-dating this though, caches of dried potatoes have been found. The dried potato can be pounded into flour and would have made a delicious soup, even in prehistoric times. Since it could preserved from year to year, potato was, along with maize, a very important crop to the ancient Incan peoples.
The first mention of Potatoes in the Americas is in the journals of Magellan and Columbus, where they are called “batatas”. They were brought to southern and central America when Pizarro conquered Peru and spread them via Spanish forts and ships.
In Ireland, the potato was brought along in 1565, though some say it was Sir Walter Raleigh who first grew it there in 1585. Either way, it quickly became the main element of the Irish diet – to the extent that when the Irish potato crop failed in 1847, one and a half million Irish died, with another million emigrating – mostly to America.
The potato also helped the starving masses of Europe when famine struck in 1770 and potatoes were grown to save the day. The French leader Parmentier set up potato soup kitchens to feed them, and to this day potato soup bears his name in the French language.