Potato Field in Bloom, by Frances Wells, 2010
We first saw masses of blooming potato plants in Belgium where the fields spread out in front of us like pink or lilac seas. Not anuncommon sight to those who live in potato growing areas, of course.
But the flowers are surprisingly unfamiliar to most people, even those with general knowledge of flowers and garden vegetables. The potato flower’s variety and delicate color, its perfume, remain exotic in high contrast to the tubers commonplace image. The Japanese early recognized the flower’s rare beauty, in fact there is evidence that tubers obtained from the Dutch in those first trading days were grown for ornamental purposes only, no eating in tended. Incidentally, we’re looking for a copy of the Japanese book of poetry entitled "Potato Blossoms."
The potato flour was described by several early botanists. The Swiss author Gaspard Bauhin wrote in his herbal, "The branches are usually divided into two stalks each of which bears many flowers, some closed and three or four open, ranging from blue to purplish, spreading out into five points which somewhat greenish-yellow lines traverse and divide; in the center there are usually bunched four reddish stamens." In 1601 Clusius observed the flowers: "They're an odor resembling the odor of the flowers of the Linden." These early blooms may well have resembled those of today's potato cousins, the Petunia. In 1923, William Stewart, author of The Potato was writing of potato flowers, "extremely attractive in color and large in size, especially in seedlings resulting from South American crosses."
Those crosses have been achieved by the plant breeder who has traditionally worked through the blossom and its seed, found in the round green fruits which form after flowering.
Stewart quotes from a study by E. M. East. "We divide potato varieties in several classes. One. Varieties whose buds drop off without opening. Two. Varieties in which a few flowers open but fall immediately. Three. Varieties whose flowers persist several days, a rarely produce a viable pollen."
When it does bloom, the spud brings forth what Stewart calls “perfect flowers, those which produce both stamens and pistols" and he goes on to say that the potato plant "is of such a simple structure as to render the task of crossing for breeding purposes, comparatively easy."
The shy flower is of less concern to the grower, however, for the potato carries on its underground production of tubers whether upper parts flower or not."
John Gerrard and Antoine Parmentier, plant scientists both, were so fascinated by the potato that each chose to be portrayed holding the perfect flower. The Gerrard sketch was published in 1597.
A version of the Parmentier portrait was reproduced for this commemorative stamp envelope.
The 1940s letter to the editor of an English publication, "the Gardener's Chronicle" points out the plant's continuing talent to surprise and delight. A gardener, John Simpson, writes of his employer's habit of wearing flowers in his buttonhole, each day at business. One morning Mr. Simpson suggested he wear a sprig of potato flowers just culled from the kitchen garden. The businessman, pleased by their great beauty, agreed. As usual the buttonhole display came under review by the gentleman's friends. "But on this occasion," writes Mr. Simpson, "not one had the faintest idea of the name of the species of the flowers. My proprietor kept them guessing and re-guessing and at last gave information that the flowers were the blossoms of the humble potato. The laugh was loud and long but the astonishment expressed at the beauty of the blooms lasted for many a long day.":
As has Fort Fairfield, Maine’s four day Potato Blossom Festival, held in July for the past five decades. The celebration, known for its impressive parade of farm machinery, also includes a road race, a recipe cook-off, mashed potato wrestling and, dare we say, the inevitable Maine Potato Blossom Queen pageant.
At our own Potato Museum celebrations held in Belgium for several years on June 13, potato flower day, we promoted the blossom on wooden boxes and trays decorated by the Dutch artist Hanneke Van Suchtelin. Her husband Nikki was a potato breeder.
The following letter was published in The Gardener's Chronicle, October 14, 1939, entitled: “Potatoes as flowering plants:"
"One of my pleasant, early recollections is, when holidaying in my school days at my grandfathers in South Devon, of the large potato patch on a gentle southern slope almost entirely covered with purple centered flowers, a most beautiful sight. Already some of the earlier flowers a given place to "potato apples," which while so fascinated me greatly. The variety was beauty of have grown, probably the most popular of those days. To my grandfather, potatoes and flowers were commonplace, and, in response to my remark, he said, “of course, potatoes flower and set their apples." How comes it that, in the course of raising new varieties of potato the breeder has destroyed, to such an extent, the plant's ability to flower? Were it not so, our potatoes would today serve the dual purpose of being an ornamental in our flower borders and of providing food.”
Another childhood discovery of potato flowers is recalled in an essay entitled "The Misused Potato" by the British novelist W. A. Hudson, author of Green Mansions.
“When I was a small boy running wild on the pampas (Hudson grew up in Argentina), amazingly interested in everything and in making wonderful discoveries, I was attracted by a small flower among the grasses, pale and meet looking, with a yellow center, petals faintly washed with purple, and a lovely scent. It charmed me with its gentle beauty and new fragrance, and surprise me with his resemblance, those in flower and leaf, to the potato plant. On showing a spray to my parents they told me that it was a potato flower. This seemed incredible, since the potato was a big plant with large clusters of purplish flowers, almost scentless, and, furthermore, it was a cultivated plant. They explained that all cultivated plants were originally wild; that long cultivation has the effect of changing the appearance and of making them larger. Then I took a table knife and went to look for a plant, and when I found it I dug down 6 inches, and there, sure enough, was the tuber, attached to the root, but quite small, not bigger than a hazelnut, perfectly round with a pimply skin, curiously light-colored, almost pearly. A pretty little thing to add to my collection of curios, but all the same a potato. How strange!”
Potato Blossom Gallery
Potato plants in bloom growing in an abandoned reed boat on Lake Titicaca.
Andean farmers used all available means to grow their vital crop.
Early portrait of the potato in bloom, 17th century Dutch engraving.
Potato plant in bloom carved on corner of statue honoring
legendary potato promoter A.A. Parmentier, Montdidier, France.
German ceramic plate with potato blossom decoration, early 20th ct.
Swedish illustration of a farmer embracing a bouquet of potato blossoms.
Artist unknown, 1970's.
Belgian house with potato patch in front yard instead of lawn, 1970's.
This holdover from the war years, when potatoes were scarce and rationed,
is less commonly practiced now in the 21st century.
Fanciful illustration of Marilyn Monroe standing in a potato field in bloom.
The legendary actress' career took off when she was photographed
wearing a potato sack dress. There is no evidence that she
ever stood in a potato field.
a promotional item from the Dutch potato industry, circa 1990's.