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The History of Sweet Potato

The sweet potato has an ancient and fascinating history… It certainly starts in the Americas, when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. They were discovered and soon exported to Spain.

The Italian term patata (potato in English) is derived from Spanish patata appeared in 1560, In turn, it derives from the name used by the Caribbean populations in Haiti: batata. Here follows the story of sweet or American potato, its arrival in Europe and its name.

The Introduction of the Potatointo Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 9 [excerpt].

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas L.) which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato in contrast was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato was introduced into Spain almost immediately after the earliest voyages. King Henry VIII, son-in-law of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, was particularly fond of them believing they possessed aphrodisiac qualities, which could provide him with that all-elusive heir. The ‘venerous roots’, imported from Spain, were a popular feature of many English banquets during the sixteenth century. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Sir John Falstaff, thinking he is about to bed two women, cries ‘Let the sky rain potatoes’, he is more than likely referring to sweet potatoes. The sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, as it could only be grown in the climate of Spain. It therefore proved to be rare and expensive in the rest of Europe. John Hawkins (1532-1595), English naval administrator, commander and expert seaman also took aboard ‘hennes potatoes and pines’ at Santa Fé in Venezuela during 1564, but again given the location these must have been sweet potatoes.
Columbus and his men never saw a tuber of solanum tuberosum, nor did the conquistador Hernán Cortéz (1485-1547) encounter the plant in Mexico. The evidence available points to two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. The Hospital de la Sangre in Seville was buying potatoes as part of their housekeeping as early as 1573. This implies that potatoes were being grown in Spain for a number of years in order to build up stocks. Carolus Clusius had visited Spain in 1564 and studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, but he does not mention the potato. The potato must therefore have been introduced to Spain between 1565 and 1570

John Gerard

It is not until the early 1590s that we hear of the potato in England. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was indebted to Clusius for information regarding the potato. Gerard was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from different parts of the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. Published in 1597, his celebrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, containing more than 1,000 species, became the first plant catalogue, and the first to incorporate a picture of the potato. It was immensely popular, providing more than 800 chapters of information on species as they were then understood. It also contained a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard added the term ‘bastard potatoes’ to distinguish the potato from the sweet potato, and added that he had received potatoes from their natural home, Virginia. He refers to the Indian name of the potato, which he incorrectly spelt ‘papus’. However, the name papas, was its vernacular not in Virginia, but in its original habitat in the South American Andes. Gerard’s statement in the Herball, that the potato had come from Virginia is erroneous. Although wild potatoes are found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century, and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s when introduced by settlers from Ulster. The potato could not therefore have been growing in Virginia as Gerard states.
The potato’s history is really a tale of two tubers, both born in New World dirt. What we know as a potato began in Peru, where it fed the Inca empire and residents of the Andean altiplano going back at least 7,000 years. The region still has the highest potato diversity in the world, and even has an ancient method for freeze-drying spuds, which are then called chunos, in the cold air of high-altitude nights.
The sweet potato, which belongs to a different species entirely, started out in the tropical warmth of the stretch of Central America between the Yucatan and the Venezuelan highlands. And by the time Columbus hit the Caribbean, the sweet potato had become a standard part of the region’s diet.
So when Christoforo needed to load up on food to make the journey back to the Old Country, he piled batatas–a native Caribbean word for sweet potatoes, probably from somewhere near modern-day Haiti–into his ships’ holds. Soon after, they were being grown in Spain and other warm parts of Europe, and sweet potatoes, which one English journeyer from 1565 said “be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets,” had entered English as the plain “potato.”
It wasn’t until the 1530s that Spanish explorers made it all the way to Peru, where they found a white-fleshed tuber that the locals called papas. And once those worked their way up to England in the 1590s, things got a little confused. What we call just plain potatoes were “Virginia potatoes” (or “bastard potatoes”) at first, but as they became more and more common in the British Isles (like, for instance, in Ireland), people dropped the “Virginia,” leaving us with just one word for two very different foods: “potato.” Which meant that for most of the 17th century, it’s impossible to tell which potato people were talking about.
Eventually, since the English climate was much more disposed to the white than the sweet, we settled on calling the sweet potatoes “sweet potatoes,” but it’s interesting to see how different Europeans dealt with the same problem. The French kept things very separate, with pomme de terre for the white ones and patate douce for the sweet, the Italians ended up calling sweet potatoes patata americana (in the inverse of older English), and the Germans came up with the same solution as us, with Kartoffel and Susskartoffel. Only the Spanish, the initial point of contact with both of these tubers, stuck to the original papa and patate divide.

Curiosity

When it first arrived in Europe, the American potato was simply called potato (or batata), since it has been known since Columbus era with other names such as “Indian convolvulus”, “Spain potato”, etc. Local potato was instead called the Earth’s boss, term, which is still used in the French “pomme de terre”. Only later, when it was reintroduced in the territory the names were changed…
Differently from what one could imagine, sweet or American potato and common potato have little in common. Sweet potato is defined as an “enlarged root” because it develops in the roots and belongs to the Convulcalcee family. The common potato is defined as tuber since its development takes place in the stem and belongs to the Solanaceae family.
Sweet potato, doesn’t contain gluten, so it can be consumed also by gluten intolerants.