The early history of the potato in Europe


Although many crops were brought to Europe by Columbus and others soon after the discovery of the New World in 1492, the potato arrived much later. This is because it is a cool-temperate crop of the high Andes of South America, and these were not discovered by the Spaniards until 1532. Potatoes were not recorded in the literature until 1537 in what is now Colombia, and did not feature in published works until 1552. No actual account has yet been discovered (and very probably does not exist) of potatoes being brought to Europe. All we can do is to record, where possible, their earliest presence there.

One of the problems in such a study is to recognize in the literature whether the Solanum tuberosum potato or the Ipomoea batatas sweet potato is under discussion, or whether they are being confused with each other. Even the word ‘potato’ known in Spanish as ‘patata’ is obviously derived from ‘batata’ yet the early Spanish authors seem always to have clearly distinguished between them. We ourselves checked the Seville archive records to make sure that the Solanum potato records of 1573 and 1576 were correct, and indeed we found that they were. The earlier English records, apart from that of Gerard, seem to have referred to the Ipomoea sweet potato.

We report in this paper even earlier records from the Canary Isles, where ‘patatas’ and ‘batatas’ are clearly distinguished, and the South American word ‘papa’ for Solanum tuberosum is also used sometimes (never, however, in continental Spain). Barrels of potatoes (‘patatas’) were exported from Gran Canaria to Antwerp in November 1567 and from Tenerife via Gran Canaria to Rouen in 1574. Thus the potato was obviously being grown as a crop in Gran Canaria and Tenerife in 1567 and 1574, respectively. We can therefore assume with some certainty that it would have needed some five years to bulk it up sufficiently as an export crop, and hence might well have been introduced in about 1562. This is only ten years after the first published account in 1552 by López de Gómara, and only thirty years after its presumed first sighting in Peru by Pizarro in 1532. It also seems to point towards the introduction of potatoes from South America into the Canary Isles, and not, as we had previously assumed, directly into continental Spain.

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Hawkes, J.G., Francisco-Ortega, J. The early history of the potato in Europe. Euphytica 70, 1–7 (1993).

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Key words

  • potato
  • patata
  • papa
  • Solanum tuberosum
  • archives
  • early records
  • Spain
  • Canary Isles
  • crop history