The Farmer's Magazine, 1863 (p 45-46)
SEEDLING POTATOES—INTERESTING EXPERIMENTS.
The potato is so universally a favourite among rich and poor as to be, not only a "household word," but an article of which few people like to be long without. If America had contributed nothing else to the comforts and luxuries of the old world, the Solanum tuberosum—for so the esculent has been dubbed in the language of botanists—would alone have directed our gratitude to the western hemisphere. Cotton we could have received from Asia and Africa, and tobacco from nearly everywhere, but only America could have given us the potato. The first nations in Europe to introduce the culture of this plant were the Spaniards and Portuguese; but to Sir Walter Raleigh belongs the honour of having first brought it to this country. He obtained the seed from Virginia, which he planted in his own garden at Youghal in Ireland, from whence the root gradually spread itself over the other parts of the United Kingdom. It would appear to have made but slow progress at first, for it was not till 1732 that it began to be cultivated in Scotland, and then only in gardens as a great rarity. We believe it was in the neighbourhood of Dundee that the first attempt was made to grow it in the open fields in large quantities. This occurred less than a century ago, and it is perhaps not much above eighty years since the plant was generally introduced an a crop by Scotch farmers. At first, potatoes were so scarce and dear that only the rich could afford to have them on their tables. The poor could only see them and smell them afar off, but were not permitted to taste them, except on festive occasions, when they were sometimes allowed to choose whether they would have a potato or an egg! How our Milesian fellow-subjects could have subsisted—what they could have used as in accompaniment to their immortal "butter milk" previous to the general introduction of "praties," we are at a loss to understand; but certain it is that Paddy took kindly to the potato, and throve upon it amasingly, if we are to believe the lyrical poets of that country, who have, for the most part, been famous for their attainments in the science of "Murphy-ology." From being the rich man's dainty, the potato very soon came to be the poor man's staple article of food. In Ireland, little else was used by the peasantry, and in England and Scotland potatoes formed the chief feature in at least the mid-day meal of the industrious classes. The potato rot of 1846, however, demonstrated the danger arising from a dependence upon a crop so precarious for the staple food of the masses, and efforts were made to introduce among the Irish peasantry a more general relish for cereal products than had previously prevailed. Since that period, it is well known the potato disease, though its severity has varied from year to year, has been an annual visitant over the whole empire. Every attempt to discover the nature of the disease, and how to cure it, has signally failed. The subject seems to be as dark, after all the investigation it has received, as it was sixteen years ago.
Everyone who knows anything about potatoes must be aware that there are two ways of propagating them. The plan adopted by the farmer is to cut the potato into "sets," leaving an "eye" in each, from which eye sprouts up the stem of the future plant. In this way the identity of the parent plant is perpetuated in its offspring, or, in other words, the young item produces tubers exactly similar to those from which it sprung, and to no other. When raised from cuttings, "regents" produce "regents," and "flukes" produce "flukes." Not so, however, when the plant is raised from the seed or "apple," which is the second, and, as opposed to the cutting process, the natural mode of propagation. In this case, the progeny of one parent differ widely from the original stock, and also from each other. From seed gathered from one stem, we may have a hundred different varieties, none of which may bear any resemblance whatever, either in form or quality, to the parent root. Naturalists explain this by saying that the breeds are crossed by the simple agency of bees, which, in the course of their wanderings in quest of honey, carry along with them the impregnating particles from the flowers of one plant and deposit a portion of them on thaw of another. But, from whatever cause it may arise, the fact is certain that the potato, like many other plants, when propagated from the seed, can be made to produce endless varieties. As this process, however, requires considerable attention on the part of the cultivator, it is but seldom resorted to in practice; though, we are inclined to think, by occasionally renewing the breeds in this manner, the disease, which has proved so fatal in late years, might be greatly modified, if not entirely averted.
We have lately had our attention directed to a large assortment of seedling potatoes, which have been raised and selected by Messrs. Paterson and Son, fruiterers, 1, Union-street, Dundee, and which are well worthy of being brought under the notice of farmers and others interested in improving the breed of this most excellent esculent. Four years ago Mr. William Paterson began his experiments by collecting plants of all the varieties of potatoes he could obtain, not only in this country, but from Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world. These he planted in close proximity to each other, so that the "crossing" should be as thorough as possible. On the apples coming to maturity he collected them carefully, dried them, and put them past for future use. In the succeeding spring he rubbed out the small seeds, and sowed than in beds. The total quantity of seed experimented upon did not exceed an ounce in weight. In the following autumn he lifted his young crop, and selected from the countless varieties which to themselves such kinds as, judging from appearance, he thought likely to prove useful. These he preserved till next year, and planted in the ordinary way, namely, from the "sets." On taking them up in the following autumn, he again made a selection, and now from that ounce of seed Mr. Paterson has this year about one hundred and fifty tons of most superb potatoes, and about fifty different varieties. They are of all shapes—round, oval, kidney-shaped, flat; and of all colours—red, black, blue, pink, magenta. It will have been noticed that since disease overtook the potato crop, the old varieties—such as buffs, blues, rednebs, blue-gowns—have become extinct, and been succeeded by new races, with new names, of which the most common are regents, rocks, and flukes. Among Mr. Paterson's new varieties we can detect the familiar faces of our old friends, the Messieurs Buffs, Blues, and Rednebs aforesaid—differing only in some minor particulars from their progenitors, just as children differ slightly in form and feature from their parents. One admirable peculiarity in these new potatoes is, that the "eyes" are not nearly so deeply sunken as in most of the varieties presently in use. They are smooth on the surface, and free from the uncouth protuberances which are frequently to be met with in the old varieties. They have another peculiarity which proves that they possess sound constitutions—they produce "apples" or "plums" in the greatest profusion. This no potato has done since the blight overtook the crop. You will pass through whole fields and scarcely find an “apple" that has come to maturity. From the stems of the Messrs. Paterson's new varieties, whole cart-loads of full-grown, healthy-looking "apples" may be collected with the greatest ease. In some few of the new varieties no signs of disease have hitherto been detected, either in the root or on the haulm, and in none of them has the disease gone deeper then the haulm. They also produce an enormous crop, some of the kinds giving as high as 62 bolls an acre. One variety last year gave returns at the rate of 90 bolls per acre; but this season having been unfavourable to the potato crop, the produce is of course much smaller. And last, though not least, some of them are of most excellent quality, exhibiting, when boiled, the fine, dry, "mealy" appearance which formed such an attractive feature in the potato pot of twenty or twenty-five years ago. These new potatoes will go on improving by culture, probably for a great many years to come, after which they will gradually deteriorate until they either die out with the disease, or fall out of public favour, and so become extinct. We understand that the Messrs. Peterson intend to sell a portion of their new varieties for seed, and we have no doubt that agriculturists will be eager to give them a trial. It is important that they should be distributed as widely as possible throughout the country in order that they may be still further improved by diversities of soil, climate, manure, &c., and also that the country at large may be speedily benefited by the introduction of choice varieties of that nutritious root which is not only the poor man's principal staff of life, but the rich man's luxury.
4804. Potatoes are most commonly made up by measure in Scotland into what are termed bolls. The boll is a given weight, which varies with the custom of the district. They ought in all cases to be sold by weight.
4805. The boll weighs 2 cwt. or 16 stones of 14 lb. to the stone, in some parts of the country, and double that weight in other parts; while in some places it is as much as 40 stones. The lightest weight is called the single, and the heavier one the double boll. It is surprising how difficult it is to introduce a uniform system of weights and measures into a country.
4806. The produce of potatoes varies amazingly, according as the season is very dry or wet. Even before the existence of the failure, it varied from 30 single bolls or 60 cwt. = 3 tons, in a very dry season; to 120 bolls or 240 cwt. = 12 tons to the acre in a moist, growing one. The disease has caused a still greater variety in the quantity.