Potato Greens are Poisonous

by Annette Welsford No Comments
Potato Greens are Poisonous

NEVER eat potato greens.

It may not seem obvious, but the green leaves of potatoes that grow above the ground are poisonous. Even eating small quantities of what we call “potato greens” can make a person very sick.

Indigenous to parts of South America, including Peru, Chile and Bolivia, the potato has been grown as a food for centuries. It was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, but it was not particularly well received. In parts of France, people were convinced potatoes were poisonous and that they caused all kinds of disease including syphilis and leprosy. In at least one town, Besancon, cultivation of potatoes was banned – even though in parts of Germany farmers were forced to grow potatoes!

While potatoes originated in South America, as man began to explore Planet Earth, they eventually found their way to North America, Europe and from there to other parts of the world.

During her 15-year reign from 1558, Queen Elizabeth I of England encouraged explorers to travel and find new plants. Both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh brought potatoes back from South America. Sir Walter Raleigh is commonly said to have been the first person to plant potatoes in Ireland, while Sir Francis Drake is said – according to a plaque on a statue of him at Offenburgh in Germany – to have introduced the plant to “Europe”.

Round about the same time (towards the end of the 16th century), John Gerarde, who was an English herbalist, writer and collector of “rare plants”, imported potatoes that he said came from Virginia in the USA.

Quite how Drake, Raleigh and Gerarde cooked their potatoes is not widely known. However Gerarde, in his famous Herball, did recommend the “root” (which we now know is a tuber) as a “delicate dish”, although not a “common food”.

What wasn’t (and still isn’t) widely publicised is that the leaves of the so-called Irish potato plant (Solanum tuberosum) are poisonous. So when Queen Elizabeth held a royal banquet in celebration of the newly discovered potato, legend has it that her chefs, not knowing anything about this strange and unusual plant, cooked up the stems and leaves and chucked out the edible tubers. Needless to say a lot of people became extremely ill, and the potato was banned from court.

Centuries later, superstitions about the potato were still rife, and even the renowned Mrs Isabella Beeton warned against using the water in which potatoes had been boiled for any nutritional purposes.

Today, of course, potatoes are an incredibly popular food all over the world. Since the majority of people buy potatoes off the shelf, the problem of poisonous potato greens is limited. But if you want to grow potatoes at home, be aware of the dangers, especially since the greens of some root plants are both delicious and nutritious, particularly the beetroot. While the potato belongs to the nightshade group of plants (so a close relative of the deadly nightshade), beetroot comes from a totally different botanical species, and the whole plant can be eaten.

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