The potato is a tuber of Solanum tuberosum, a perennial plant of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, which is one of the most widely used vegetables in Europe and North America. There are six other species of minor importance. There are thousands of variaties in cultivation.
The potato is unrelated to the sweet potato. It is sometimes referred to as the "Irish Potato" to distinguish.
The potato plant is thought to be native to the Andes and cultivated originally by the Inca people, spreading over time throughout other Native American groups and becoming a staple food. The Spanish explorers of Peru probably brought it to Europe in the 16th century, where it quickly spread. European settlers reintroduced it to North America during the immigration in the 17th century. It was introduced into Britain and Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
In the 18th century, the potato became a major food in Ireland, and was grown as a large scale crop throughout Britain and Ireland. In fact, the Irish economy became so dependent on a single variety of potatoes as a staple that when an outbreak of Late Blight of Potato swept Europe in the 1840s, the resulting famine led to terrible disease, death, and emigration. The blight marks an important, though tragic, point in Irish history.
Potatoes come in brown, yellow, red, and purple. Their flesh may be white or colored like the skin. Small types are called fingerling or new potatoes. Some common varieties are "Burbank Russet" (large, brown skin, white-fleshed, developed by Luther Burbank), "Yellow Finn" (small, with yellow skin and flesh), and "German Butterball" (a yellow fingerling). Individual varieties may be labeled boiling, indicating that they retain some shape when boiled, or baking indicating that they only hold they shape if baked.
Potato plants are low-growing and have white flowers with yellow stamens. They grow best in cool, moist climates such as Maine, Idaho, Germany, Russia, Poland, and Canada, though they are widely adaptable and are grown on a small scale in most temperate regions.
The tubers are covered with buds called eyes. Common varieties of potatoes do no produce seeds; the flowers are sterile. Instead, they are propagated by planting pieces of existing tubers, cut to include at least one eye. Confusingly, these pieces are called seed potatoes.
Potatoes have a high carbohydrate content and include protein, minerals (particularly potassium, calcium and vitamins, including vitamin C. More vitamin C is found in freshly harvested potatoes than potatoes that have been stored.
Potatoes also contain a mild toxin, solanine that are destroyed by cooking. Solanine increases with potatoes' age and exposure to light and any green areas of a potato are highest in the toxin. Solanine may cause headaches, diahrea and cramps. Green area are usually near the skin caused by exposure to light; however, these areas can be discarded or well-cooked.
A benefit of new and fingerling potatoes is that they contain less solanin, so that the nutrients under the skin need not be lost. Such potatoes are an excellent source of nutrition. Peeled, long-stored potatoes fried by fast-food establishments have less nutritional value although they still have potassium and vitamin C.
Potatoes are commonly eaten boiled then mashed and mixed with butter, cream, or other seasonings (mashed potatoes); baked whole; cut into cubes and roasted; grated formed into dumplings; and cut into long, thin pieces and fried (French-fried potatoes).