Solanum tuberosum aegrotans
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Spanish seamen carried the potato to Europe, where it was a curiosity in private horticultural gardens for two centuries. It was not often eaten because gardeners knew it was in the same family (Solanaceae) as deadly nightshade. In fact all parts of the potato plants, except the tubers, are poisonous to people. The tubers may become poisonous on exposure to light when they begin to turn green. Sometime after 1800, Europeans found the potato tuber (really an underground stem anatomically) was edible, and it was quickly adapted as a staple crop-the climate and soil in Europe was similar to that of the Andes and thus ideal for cultivation. The potato was especially attractive to Irish peasants. Why should this be so?
Most of the land in Ireland was owned as large estates by absentee English landlords, who made long-term leases to English middlemen. They, in turn, subdivided the estates into small parcels and rented them at high rates to Irish tenants (often to the same people whose families had historically owned the land). Although the Irish peasants were poor, they could pay the high rent in the form of produce, grains, and sometimes pigs. Thus the main problem for tenants was to have a crop to sustain the family for almost a year while growing conditions were adverse. The potato provided the perfect solution. It gave a good yield and satisfied their hunger-- because of its bulk, stomachs were distended from 8-14 pounds (4- 6 kg) of potatoes per person per day!! Think about a 10 pound bag of potatoes; that's a lot of potatoes! This was virtually all the peasants had to eat during the winter months--the average family consumed up to a ton of potatoes per month.
The potato did well for the Irish, for the population of Ireland exploded from 4.5 million in 1800 to about 8 million in 1845. This is particularly amazing because most of the population was dependent on the potato for their nutrition for 10 months of the year. But then came the late blight of potato.
People noticed localized outbreaks of the disease during the early 1800's, although they didn't know the cause. There was always a background level of the disease, but it didn't become a problem until 1845. An ominous warning appeared in the Gardener's Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette: "A fatal malady has broken out amongst the potato crop. On all sides we hear of destruction. In Belgium the fields are said to have been completely desolated." The disease struck down plants like a hard frost in summer. It was said to spread faster than cholera does in humans. It reduced the foliage to a putrid mass in a few days, and the tubers were affected to various degrees in a similar way, although they did not rot as rapidly.
One amateur mycologist, the Rev. M.J. Berkeley, noticed the mycelium on the leaves and proposed that it was a fungal disease. This was not widely accepted-- scientific thinking at the time dictated that a fungus couldn't be the cause of a disease, so it must be a secondary invader. Of course Rev. Berkeley was right.
In September 1845, the journal announced that the disease had become established in Ireland. The weather was unusually cool and wet that year allowing easy distribution of the zoospores of the pathogen. With the tremendous destruction it wrought, famine was inevitable, and (according to some sources) the English realized this. To stave off starvation, they considered importing cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and corn, but at the time the English had Corn Laws (for those of you on this side of the pond, grains in England were called corn, while what we call corn here is called maize in Britain). The Corn Laws imposed a high tariff on imported grains, but not corn (maize), so they couldn't import enough wheat or barley to sell cheaply to the peasants.
The winter of 1845 was disastrous. The stored potatoes were rotting because they had been harvested too early. So desperate were they that many of the stored seed potatoes were eaten, and many rotted. Thus the following year was critical. According to some reports, the English tried importing maize to ward off starvation for the Irish. However, the Irish refused to eat the corn-- it was not as filling as the potato, and they considered it chicken feed. As the growing season of 1846 progressed, those that had salvaged seed potatoes were optimistic, since the new plants seemed very healthy. It seems their prayers had been answered. BUT---.
In July 1846 the disease struck again; there was a cool, wet period, just like the year before, allowing the Phytophthora's zoospores to multiply and spread. From that time on the disease was there to stay. In some years (warm and dry), the disease was localized; in wet years, the disease became epidemic. The corn laws were repealed, but it was too late.
Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported from their country. A half million were evicted from their homes during the potato blight, and a million and a half emigrated to America, Britain and Australia, often on-board rotting, overcrowded "coffin ships". This is the story of how that immense tragedy came to pass.
The potato, introduced to Ireland about 1590, could grow in the poorest conditions, with very little labor. This was important because laborers had to give most of their time to the farmers they worked for, and had very little time for their own crops.
"The actual cause of (potato crop) failure was phytophthora infestans - potato blight. The spores of the blight were carried by wind, rain and insects and came to Ireland from Britain and the European continent. A fungus affected the potato plants, producing black spots and a white mould on the leaves, soon rotting the potato into a pulp." (16.)
By the summer of 1847, over three million people were being fed by government soup kitchens and those organized by Quakers. "So many people died in so short of time that mass graves were provided.
The number of deaths during the Famine has variously been calculated as lying between half a million and one and a half million fatalities. The correct number probably lies in between. It is more generally accepted that in the region of one million people died during these years. Excess mortality as a result of the Famine, however, did not end in 1851. In addition to deaths, the Famine also contributed to a decrease in the birthrate, by contributing to a decline in the rate of marriage and in the level of fertility and fecundity.