Where did the potato come from and How did the word “potato” originate?

Shortly after the West Indies were discovered, Spanish navigators must have learned of the potato plant, new to them, with its tuberous roots which the natives used as a food.

But the first mention of these plants in European accounts appears to have been in 1526.

The name, in Haiti, was batata, and it was under this name that the plant was first known in Europe. This plant, however, was what we now call the sweet potato.

It was cultivated only as a curiosity for some time after its introduction into Europe; its edible qualities were viewed with suspicion. When the Spaniards reached Peru and began to explore its resources, they found another tuberous plant with white tubers which the natives of that region also ate.

Although the local name appeared to be papas, the Spaniards took it to be another variety of the West Indian plant and called it batata also, though the two are unrelated. The latter plant, described in 1553, may have been brought to Spain before 1580, but that is the earliest recorded date.

It was then independently cultivated in Italy, France, and in Germany before the end of the century. And, although the plant is not a native of Virginia and Sir Walter Raleigh was never in that colony, it was stated that Raleigh introduced the plant from Virginia into England in 1596.

The early batata was corrupted in Spain to patata and was altered to potato when first described in England. They also called it the Virginia or common potato to distinguish it from the earlier sweet or Spanish potato.

Except in Ireland, such cultivation as it had was as a food for cattle, rather than for human consumption.

There, from early in the seventeenth century, it became so staple an article of food and was so largely cultivated that the common name of the white potato has become “Irish potato,” or, humorously, “Murphy.”

The colloquial American name “spud” arises from the narrow, spade-like tool of that name used in digging potatoes.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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