||Above: Several varieties of heirloom potatoes. On the left, Conestoga. The three large rose-colored potatoes: Bliss’ Triumph. The pale pink potatoes: Garnet Chile. The long, narrow potatoes are Austrian Kipfelkrumpl. The greenish example in the center is intended to show a potato exposed to sunlight; such potatoes are poisonous and should never be eaten.
Growing heirloom potatoes presents special problems for the gardener because the old varieties are not as resistant to disease as modern ones. Furthermore, potato varieties predating the advent of the blight in the 1840s are to be found only in gene banks or in special botanical collections. Nineteenth-century varieties developed in the 1850s and 1860s from Mexican or South American stock represent the oldest sorts presently available to heirloom gardeners. The best known of these is Garnet Chile, which produced many of the leading American potato varieties of the period.
Prior to the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s, some of the most popular potatoes in my region of the country were Mercer and Foxite. New Englanders preferred Winnebagoes and Blue Jackets. In the Carolines, it was Pink-Eye and an old variety called Brimstone (also the name of a sweet potato), the latter dating from the early eighteenth century. Each region had its favorites due to soil and climate, and this regionalization is still critical when planning an heirloom potato garden.
When potatoes are propagated through cuttings, each succeeding generation is a genetic clone of its parents, carrying down with it all of the inherited strengths and weaknesses of the variety. Diseases are also passed down, and over the years some heirloom varieties have accumulated so many viruses and other maladies that they are almost impossible to grow successfully without resorting to massive doses of sprays and fungicides. Recently, a new and highly expensive technology called tissue culture has been developed to “debug” old, ailing heirlooms in the laboratory, reducing the potatoes to marble-sized tubers. When planted, these tiny potatoes produce vines that yield potatoes of proper size and true to variety. At present, this treatment is only feasible for seed banks and similar institutional collections. However, perhaps within the next twenty years, it will allow gardeners to grow some of the pre-1850 varieties that once enjoyed great popularity.
Foremost among these would be the Mercer potato, which was sorely missed by farmers in the Middle States well into the 1860s and 1870s. This was a flat, kidney-shaped potato with a slight pinkish cast to the tapered end. It bore early and stored well. Its original name was the Neshannock, often mistakenly called the Chenango. As Charles Hovey’s Magazine of Horticulture (1844, 310) pointed out, this variety emerged about 1809 from a seed ball in a garden on Neshannock Creek in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Neshannock Creek is a branch of the Chenango River, and all of these geographical names have gotten muddled together in the history of this potato. The Pennsylvania German agricultural monthly Ceres (1839, 55) elaborated on the background of the potato’s originator, one John Gilky, an immigrant from Ireland. In fact, Gilky created several subvarieties, including the Red Mercer (also known as Donaneil’s Beauty, Mormon, and Olympia) and the Black Mercer, a smooth purple-skinned spring potato with white flesh. This triumvirate of Mercers was profoundly important to the development of later nineteenth-century varieties because the Mercers were viewed as models by which other varieties should be judged. Potato breeders never recreated a blight-proof Mercer, but they did manage to develop a number of varieties that effectively replaced it.
German botanist Edward Pöppig (1798–1868) traveled to Chile and Peru in 1827 in search of the “original” wild potato, which indeed he discovered. His Reise in Chile, Peru und auf dem Amazon, published in 1835 and 1836, not only is engaging to read even today, with its minute descriptions of the various potato preparations made by Peruvians (giving the Indian names as well), but historically Pöppig sparked a scholarly interest in native potato varieties from Mexico and South America. Garnet Chile owed its creation in part to his recognition that there was a practical side to experimenting with potatoes from their genetic homeland.
The massive failure of the potato crops in Europe and their historical repercussions of famine and human displacement are well known. The reasons for this disaster are also well understood and provide one of the strongest possible arguments for preserving genetic diversity in all living things, unheeded as this call may be. The potatoes grown in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all descended from a small handful of introductions that were closely related. Through constant inbreeding, new varieties were created, yet genetically they were all nearly identical. When the blight struck, none of these old types were resistant to it, so the disease spread quickly and lethally.
The genetic aspects as we now understand them were not fully appreciated in the nineteenth century, but horticulturists did realize that the plants were inbred and therefore unable to resist disease. As the Florist and Horticultural Journal (1854, 163–66) editorialized on the degeneracy of the potato and the “disease of 1846,” raising potatoes from tubers was unnatural because it bypassed the seed stage, thus perpetuating weaknesses and rendering them more “fixed and unchangeable.” This realization brought about the Great Revival, as it was called, when old, deteriorating potato varieties were crossed with hardier wild varieties from Mexico and South America. This experimentation in the 1850s and 1860s resulted in many of the most popular heirloom potatoes of the nineteenth century. Early Rose stands out as one of the most famous and commercially important. It is still a good potato by any culinary standard, and every time I plant it, I think about its fascinating history. The other potatoes in this section were also chosen on historical merits. But the final test was in the garden. There is absolutely nothing more simple yet pleasantly satisfying than a freshly dug potato cooked to perfection. Potatoes brought out of storage cannot compare.
How to Prepare Seed Potatoes
Potatoes are generally divided into early, midseason, and late varieties. Historically, many households planted one of each in order to keep potatoes in crop over a long period. I raise sixteen varieties of heirloom potatoes and mostly ignore their seasonality because I have more than enough potatoes for my own needs all the time. Other gardeners may create their own criteria. Much depends on questions of storage, for without proper storage it is pointless to consider raising potatoes on a regular basis.
Regardless of the variety, all potatoes are planted essentially the same way. Seed potatoes kept back from the previous year’s harvest are cut into pieces, each with an “eye” as shown in the old woodcut. These eyes produce shoots that develop into plants. There is no real advantage to planting a whole potato instead of an eye. The only exception is in ground with very poor soil. In moderately rich ground, potatoes should be cut in half or quartered, otherwise cut them into eyes. I tried planting whole potatoes one year just to get rid of an overabundance of seed potatoes. With some varieties, the resulting crop produced fewer potatoes than those planted from eyes. Since seed potatoes are edible (unless they are green), find a use for the extra ones in the kitchen.
Planting Seed Potatoes
I dig deep trenches, perhaps 14 inches deep, in rows 32 inches apart. The cuttings are planted about 13 inches apart, even for small varieties. If the variety produces many tubers, then space the cuttings 16 inches apart. Crowding only reduces harvest yields. Early varieties are planted in March in my part of the country. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, Saint Margaret’s Day (March 17) was always considered the “official” day to begin planting potatoes, although of late, strange weather has often upset this schedule. In any case, I am usually ahead of the farmers because I plant in raised beds, which thaw and dry out sooner than open fields. The remaining varieties that I grow are normally planted by mid-April regardless of whether they are mid-or late-season varieties. They bloom at different times and crop at different times anyway.
Once the plants break surface and reach a height of about one foot, I bring in a truckload of mushroom soil (rotted horse manure in which mushrooms have been grown) and mound it at least two-thirds of the way up the stems. I usually do this twice during the growing season to ensure that the tubers are well buried. The mushroom soil creates a loose growing medium around the base of the plants that pays for itself in several ways. Potatoes form perfectly shaped tubers in it, they are not difficult to dig, and the mushroom soil helps renew the ground with humus once the potatoes are finished. I rotate regularly, as all gardeners should, because potatoes leave problems behind.
Common Potato Diseases
The most universal problem is scab. Scab is a barklike growth on the skin of potatoes caused by fungus. It does not poison the potatoes and can be removed from eating potatoes simply by paring it away with the skin. But it remains in the ground at least three years and will infect other root vegetables such as carrots and beets. The best method for killing it is by exposing seed potatoes to sunlight. The Pennsylvania Dutch used to spread all the seed potatoes on the floor of their barns for a few weeks so that the sunlight would turn them green. Planting later in the season also helps control scab. I eliminate any seed potatoes that show signs of scab, taking great care not to handle healthy potatoes until I have washed my hands with alcohol. Human hands will spread scab from one potato to the next.
Harvesting potatoes is backbreaking work. I know of one seed saver who digs several tons of heirloom potatoes with her bare hands so that the potatoes will not be damaged. She receives top-of-the-line prices for her picture-perfect tubers, but her hands look like driftwood. I use a pitchfork, wear gloves, and dig gently. Certain potato lovers usually show up to hover on the sidelines with words of encouragement and the keen expectation that I will accidentally impale a few treasured heirlooms, which of course I must give away for immediate cooking. The barter is a bottle of wine, so I make certain to stick a number (not too badly, of course) to keep up the deal.
Once the harvest is in and all potatoes accounted for, pick out the best for seed stock, including any green ones. Green potatoes are poisonous; do not even consider eating them, not even the ones with a small patch of green. Potatoes will store no better washed and dried than if the soil is left on. I wash and dry mine only because I want to be certain I have not missed a green spot or a patch of scab. Also, I can better determine which ones have the best skins. Beyond that, the seed potatoes go into brown paper bags, clearly labeled and dated. The bags are stored in a refrigerator set at about 40° F. The potatoes remain dormant in cool temperatures. I have never had any problems with the small varieties that tend to get soft and wrinkly for other gardeners. On the other hand, I keep the refrigerator spotlessly clean, and I check the seed potatoes from time to time to make certain that none have gone bad.
Potato Pests: Colorado Potato Beetles, Wire Worms and More
As an experiment, one year I left Conestoga in the ground until the middle of September, almost two months after it was ready to harvest. This had no effect on the quality of the potato, which happens to be a small white variety with pink eyes. But some of the tubers were attacked by nematodes, wire worms, and other boring insects. These insects only infest a piece of ground where there is food. They can be starved out of a raised bed that is planted a full season with cowpeas.
Colorado potato beetles (with distinctive black-and-yellow stripes) are another problem, but they have never been a serious one for me. On a weekly basis I spray the plants with insecticidal soap, which imparts an unsavory taste to the leaves. If the spraying is begun early enough in the season, the beetles will be contained because the spray kills the grubs; indeed, they will be the least of one’s worries. The greatest threat to an organic potato patch is blight, wilt, or other viral diseases. At the slightest appearance of any of these, destroy the vines by burning them far away from the garden. These sick plants are not worth a salvage operation; while the plants are “recovering” they are also contagious and will spread the diseases to tomatoes, eggplants, groundcherries, and peppers within a matter of hours. Never touch healthy plants after handling sick ones. And kindly ask cigarette smokers not to touch members of the nightshade family. Smokers’ hands carry tobacco viruses that are contagious to these plants. Smokers are as good as Typhoid Mary in an organic garden and greenhouse, and I know it irritates them to make a fuss, but after all, there are plenty of other places they can go if they want to smoke.
Finally, purchase organically raised seed potatoes only from reputable seed firms like Seeds Blüm, Ronninger’s, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, or the other seed firms listed at the back of this book (Use the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Seed and Plant Finder to locate sources for organic, heirloom or just hard-to-find seeds). Ronninger’s was particularly helpful to me in locating seed potatoes for some of the rare and unusual varieties I now cultivate. They came to my rescue when I wanted to grow out some of the varieties mentioned in the following pages. They are extremely helpful to their customers and, in fact, sent me as a gift seed potatoes for a variety called Charlotte, a small, buttery potato, enormously productive and good in storage. In fact, this is one of the varieties recommended by French chef Joël Robuchon in his Le Meilleur et le plus simple de la pomme de terre (1994, 44), a book that has to be the last word on potato cookery. For those tremulous readers who have never grown potatoes and feel intimidated by the idea of planting them, I would recommend growing Charlotte first to get a feel for potato culture. After that, graduate to some of the rarer, older varieties listed in the following pages.
Do Potato Seeds Really Exist?
A final question that I have often been asked: Do potatoes produce seeds? Yes. After blooming, potatoes produce seed balls that resemble tiny green eggplants. These usually turn yellow when ripe. Seed can be saved from these balls, dried, and planted in flats in the early spring like tomato seed. They will produce seedlings that can be planted out of doors after the threat of frost has passed. Potato seed does not produce plants that are true to the parent but, rather a mixture of colors, shapes, and throwbacks to ancestral types. Letting heirloom potatoes cross in the garden and planting seed from them is one enjoyable way to create new potato varieties. There are seed savers who have devoted their lives to this highly creative form of gardening. It is by no means a new art, for Amelia Simmons was convinced that this was the secret to the best of the Irish potatoes. She had this to say in her famous cookbook: “I may be pardoned by observing, that the Irish have preserved a genuine mealy rich Potato, for a century, which takes rank of any known in any other kingdom; and I have heard that they renew their seed by planting and cultivating the Seed Ball, which grows on the vine.” This may provide some insight into how it happened that John Gilky was so adept at creating his trilogy of Mercer potatoes.
Heirloom Potato Varieties
Bliss' Triumph Potato
Bliss’ Triumph, introduced by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York, was originally red. It should resemble a larger version of Garnet Chile, round and somewhat apple shaped. It is a good potato for the South; indeed, it was once raised extensively in Bermuda and Florida for sale in northern markets. However, in many of those markets, red potatoes did not sell well, so through selection lighter-colored strains of Triumph were developed, including the white Bliss’ Triumph. The white strain evolved simultaneously in several areas of the country and was not the product of any one particular seedsman. In the South, to differentiate it from the Triumph, the old original strain, which was identical in color to it but genetically different, was often marketed under the name Stray Beauty. The convoluted commercial history of this potato at least speaks for its enormous popularity, but it is important to keep in mind that Bliss’ Triumph has come down to us as a red, a pink, and a white potato. These differences are only in the skin pigmentation. All three variants have white flowers and white flesh.
Bliss’ Triumph is consistently the first potato to push shoots in my garden. In the North, this means that it should be planted late enough in the season that it will not be nipped by frost. This potato is also the most consistent cropper for me, outproducing all others, and a real pleasure to dig because the potatoes themselves are beautiful. Right from the ground, they give off a pinglike sound when rapped and snap like apples when broken open. For boiling and for potato salads, this is my favorite potato. But perfection does not come without its price. The skin of this potato is very thin and easily damaged when dug; damaged potatoes cannot be stored. In hot weather, it has a weakness for the dreaded blight. A watchful eye during hot spells and care in digging will keep both problems under control.
Champion or Vermont Champion Potato
Introduced in 1881 by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York, this well-named potato is best boiled in its skin. It is a terrific as a new potato, small, round, great for salads with French dandelion, upland cress, or salad burnet. Toss in a few morels and “smother” this with chopped shallots, and you will have a potato feast made in heaven. Champion is also a first-class dumpling potato, surpassed in excellence only by the Austrian Kipfelkrumpl, yet the two varieties stand by themselves and should not be equated.
Early Ohio Potato
The American Garden (1889, 227) remarked that Early Ohio was “emphatically a garden potato, unreliable as a field potato.” Never having grown it in a field, I cannot comment on that, but as a garden potato it is indeed perfect. The vines are not large and unwieldy, and the potatoes are a comfortable medium size that ensures good yields on small patches of ground.
Horticulturist D. B. Harrington undertook a large growout of old potato varieties in 1889 and reported on the results in the American Garden (1890, 122). He discovered that Early Ohio was being sold under the following aliases: Early Illinois, Prize, Royal Gem, Early New York, and Extra Early Ohio. These varieties are not extinct; they never existed except on paper.
Early Ohio was introduced in 1875 by the James J. H. Gregory Seed Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was a seedling of Early Rose that came to crop earlier and more prolific than its parent. It is best suited for the North and comes to crop after Bliss’ Triumph, almost on cue. The round, somewhat apple-shaped tubers have a parchment-colored skin, with random patches of rose. The skin is not as easily damaged during digging as that of some of the other heirloom varieties. The largest potatoes in my garden have weighed about 12 ounces each.
Early Rose Potato
Beauty of Hebron was said to be better; claims against it were already readily available, yet no potato can satisfy all gardeners and all soil types. Early Rose comes close. The American Agriculturist (April 1870, 123) said it very plainly: “We have seen nothing equal to Early Rose for garden culture.” One of the most highly advertised potatoes of its time and one of the first in a long series of potatoes created from it, Early Rose was introduced in 1861 with considerable hyperbole by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York. As Mennonite seedsman John G. Kreider pointed out in the Lancaster Farmer (1870, 41–42), Early Rose emerged from a seed ball of Garnet Chile, the same seed ball that produced Bresee’s Prolific, a dwarf variety that now appears to be extinct. Its creator was Albert Bresee, a Hubbardton, Vermont, horticulturist who introduced a number of other highly successful varieties, among them Bresee’s King of the Earlies.
Early Rose eventually replaced Pink-Eye in the South and a vast list of other highly regionalized American varieties. The French were so taken with it that it was depicted in glowing color in the Album Vilmorin (1875. 26). Wilhelm Hampel, in his Frucht-und Gemüse-Treiberei (Berlin, 1885) declared that it was one of the best potato varieties for hothouse culture. Those were the days when wealthy European aristocrats could afford greenhouses to produce year-round what the markets failed to supply.
On this side of the Atlantic, Early Rose proved to be one of the great economic successes of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Its aliases say it all: Antwerp, Boston Market, Baker’s Imperial, Chicago Market, Cayuga, Carter’s Early, Clark’s No. I, Early Vermont, Early New Zealand, Early Maine, Early Dustin, Early Mohawk, Early Sunrise, Early Essex, Howard, New York Market, Pearl of Savoy, Roxanna, Sunlit Star, Summit, Spaulding, Vanguard, Waverly, and Watson’s Seedling. None of these was anything other than Early Rose by another name. The flower of Early Rose is white. One of its most famous seedlings was Burbank Seedling, introduced by James J. H. Gregory in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Garnet Chile Potato
There are two potatoes that may be considered American classics of the nineteenth century. One is Worcester’s Seedling, developed by the Reverend Thomas Worcester of Boston and introduced commercially in 1868. The other is Garnet Chile. Regardless of its culinary merits, which are not to be dismissed, Garnet Chile shifted potato culture in this country in an entirely new direction. The Reverend Chauncy E. Goodrich of Utica, New York, introduced this variety in 1853. In response to the blight of 1846, he obtained seed stock from Chile, and from those plants he selected this small, round, pink potato that became the granddaddy of most nineteenth-century varieties we know today. Goodrich’s influence was even more pervasive than his famous potato; he published an important article in the Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 205–6) on techniques for propagating new potato varieties from seed. This article was circulated among the country’s leading horticulturists, and its lessons were soon put into practice. After all, Goodrich was no novice; he had also created many other well-known potato varieties, among them Calico, Goodrich’s Early, and Cuzco.
From a culinary standpoint, Garnet Chile is an excellent boiling potato, perfect for salads, and makes an attractive garnishing potato for restaurant cookery. Best of all, unlike many small potatoes, it is an excellent keeper. Oddly, it has never bloomed for me, although I understand that the flower is white.
Green Mountain Potato
Green Mountain has been popular ever since its introduction about 1885. Round, tan-skinned, with white flesh, it epitomizes the high-starch late-season potato that is often associated with New England cookery. It is an ideal potato for gratin or Rösti (grated potato pancakes), pones, or for more substantial dishes—even potato chips, or Saratoga chips as they were once called. The woodcut shows the old device that was used to make the original Saratoga chips. When boiled, Green Mountain cooks snowy white and remains firm. Like Garnet Chile, it stores well. The flower is white.
In the Sandusky, Ohio, cookbook of Eliza G. Follett called The Young Housekeeper’s Assistant (1874, 38), there is a pone recipe for which Green Mountain is particularly well adapted. It is a species of galette bretonne that also can be made with white sweet potatoes. Baked in a heavy iron crepe pan, it resembles a large sweet pancake that can be eaten with stewed fruit or jam.
Potato Pone Recipe, West India Dish
Grate two pounds of potatoes, add four ounces of sugar, and the same of butter, one teaspoon of salt and one of pepper, mix well together, butter a baking dish, and bake brown.
Irish Cobbler Potato
A sport of Early Rose, this early-season potato reminds me of a larger version of Champion, but with a much more pronounced potato flavor and a nutty aroma to the skin. I think the similarity to Champion is in the texture and color of the cooked flesh. When tasted side by side, it is easy to confuse the two. Irish Cobbler is very fine boiled in the skins, which turn light brown when cooked but are covered with patches and irregularities that do not recommend it as the sort of elegant garnishing potato possible with Garnet Chile. This is definitely a homey potato, at its best in rustic country recipes.
Peach Blow Potato
This is the oldest heirloom variety on my list, dating from before 1850. It is often called Jersey Peach Blow after its state of origin. In fact, it may be the same early potato developed in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1841 alluded to in Charles Hovey’s Magazine of Horticulture (1841, 73). That “new seedling” was circulated without name for a number of years among Jersey farmers. The vine blooms with a soft peach-pink flower, very attractive in its own right. The potatoes are small, mealy, and have a wonderful potato flavor. Thorburn’s White Peach Blow was a seedling of this variety, developed in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and introduced in 1863. It should not be confused with its parent, although the tuber is very similar. A late variety called Bliss’ Improved Peach Blow was created by crossing Peach Blow with Excelsior. The tuber resembles Peach Blow, but the yield is nearly double.
Russet Burbank Potato
Developed in 1876 from Early Rose, this is the archetypical Idaho potato, perfect for baking and French fries. The tubers are long and rounded on the ends, sometimes attaining very large size. This potato is difficult to grow in the South; it requires uniform moisture throughout its growing season, and must have loose sandy soil in order to develop well-shaped tubers. I have had very little luck with it but recommend it highly for those gardeners who can meet its cultural requirements. Where it grows well, it produces abundantly, better than some of the russet varieties of more recent date.
True to its name, this potato is white and flaky. It is also extremely handsome. Introduced in the spring of 1874 by B. K. Bliss & Sons of New York, Snowflake became one of the most popular of the nineteenth-century mealy potatoes. It is perfect for dumplings, potato bread, and stuffings. In D. B. Harrington’s potato growout in 1889, the Michigan horticulturist discovered that Snowflake was being marketed under a large list of commercial aliases: Big Benefit, Boston Cracker, Crawford’s Seedling, Centennial, Charles Downing, Mayflower, Early English, Pride of America, Early Burlingame, and Potentate. Patriotic labels do not alter the plant, but its commercial success is probably best demonstrated by the number of phony aliases used to sell it. True to its namesake, the flower is also snowy white. However, of all the potatoes I have selected for this list, Snowflake is the least productive. This may be related to my soil type and not a fault of the variety. Anecdotal evidence from other gardeners suggests that this potato may do best in sandy ground.