Mad About Science


By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Judging by the number of Washington, California and Arizona license plates I counted on the corner of Boyer Avenue and Highway 2 while waiting for lunch at my favorite food truck, I have deduced that tourist season has finally begun. To those of you Sandpoint first-timers: welcome, and please treat our small town with respect. To those of you returning to Sandpoint, either for the summer or for a repeat vacation, the same goes for you.

To many of the non-Idahoan eyeballs that may be curiously scanning our local paper, the sight of a potato is ubiquitous to the image of Idaho. It’s funny, then, that you will probably be disappointed by our local selection of spuds.

Sorry, folks. Hate to break it to you, but potatoes don’t fare so well in our neck of the woods, and the farmers of southern Idaho get top dollar for shipping the state’s best stock to places like New York and California, leaving very little in the way of high-end potato stock for us in the north. 

The challenge of growing potatoes hasn’t deterred some local gardeners, however, and a basic truth of the panhandle is just as true for these starchy tubers as it is for any form of food: befriend a local gardener and you’ll enjoy a meal no restaurant or grocery store could ever properly replicate.

In the event that you can’t find any local gardeners, I’d like to invite you to check out any of our dozens of local restaurants to find that potato dish of your dreams. Not sure where to start? Try anywhere on First Avenue and work your way down the streets. I promise you will find something you will be talking about in your home state for years.

So, let’s get to the meat (and potatoes) of this science article.

Potatoes are a root vegetable native to the Americas. Originally domesticated somewhere in the Andes Mountains of Peru as far back as 8,000 BCE, the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere cultivated and spread Idaho’s signature tuber from South America to North America. It might surprise you that, despite the heavy cultural impact of potatoes on Europe, they didn’t exist in the Old World until the Spanish brought them home in the 16th century.

Potatoes as we know them are actually part of the root system of the potato plant. Their heavy starch content is a byproduct of photosynthesis, by which the plant creates glucose molecules that get pressed together underground. 

My research on why the plant stores all of this glucose was, ahem, fruitless, as virtually every article I browsed focused on the importance of complex carbohydrates in the human diet — not the plant’s diet. 

As I couldn’t find any relevant information, the best I can do is conjecture that the heavy starch content is the plant’s way of creating a natural “battery pack” to jumpstart sprouts before they can produce roots and leaves of their own, hence your household potatoes’ tendency for creating vine-like sprouts when left in damp areas for too long.

I could very well be wrong on this, and I fully implore any botanists or home gardeners to provide some input on that subject.

Have you ever noticed a potato you’ve left out in the sun start to turn green and become extremely bitter? Well, you shouldn’t eat that potato. Despite looking like a dumb brown lump, the potato is actually responding directly to the sun’s photons and producing something called glycoalkaloids, which are bitter and toxic, serving the dual purpose of protecting the potato’s exposed skin from the sun’s harmful rays as well as unwanted predators. The leaves of potato plants will also produce this compound. 

The potato isn’t the only plant that produces glycoalkaloids. Tomatoes, nightshade and tobacco will also produce this compound in their leaves, though whether this is evidence of these plants’ possible shared lineage or a feature of parallel evolution is a discussion way above my paygrade.

Due to their heavy starch content, potatoes are versatile vegetables. Outside of their use in cuisine, the starch has been used as an effective organic adhesive as well as the base for some biodegradable plastics currently in use on the market.

As a final bit of curious information, did you know that there are more than 5,000 types of potato in the world? We see fewer than 10 in our everyday lives, with those consisting of the classic Russet potato, Yukon Gold potatoes, red potatoes and the various types that make up fingerling potatoes. Also worth noting, it’s illegal in Idaho to plant a potato you buy from the grocery store. This is intended to preserve agricultural crops from contracting a disease that could potentially wipe out an entire type of potato that isn’t being carefully monitored by a professional.

However, the tuber seeds you can buy from farm and feed stores are not only safe, but legal to plant in our state. 

If you’re just visiting, maybe watch and help a local with their garden. Don’t go planting stuff in the forest and leaving it to nature. That’s how plant-based epidemics start. If that sounds like fallacy, I implore you to explore the diseases wiping out the Cavendish banana crops that may drive America’s favorite cheap starch into extinction.

Stay curious, 7B.

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