A trait found in a wild potato, Berthault’s potato (Solanum berthaultii) may make growing garden potatoes (S. tuberosum) a lot easier.
The leaves and stems of Berthault’s potato, native to Bolivia, are covered with trichomes (sticky hairs). When a small insect, such as an aphid, a flea beetle or a leafhopper, lands on the plant, it is physically sprayed with more glue and ends up stuck, unable to either feed or flee. It’s a tragic destiny for the pest, but a victory for the potato!
Larger insects, such as the Colorado potato beetle, do manage to break free of sticky hairs, but the experience is apparently traumatic enough that they tend to feel the plant immediately and are reluctant to return, let alone lay eggs, unless there is nothing else around to eat.
This natural protection may, in some cases, eliminate insecticide use entirely. Here’s one plant doesn’t need people to protect it from its enemies: it knows exactly what to do!
Interestingly, sticky leaves also seemed linked to a greater resistance to diseases such as mildew, although the reason why is not yet known.
Creating a Hairy Table-Ready Potato
This discovery prompted researchers at Cornell University, including Bob Plaisted and Walter De Jong, to cross Berthault’s potato, a small-tuber variety with spuds scarcely worth harvesting, with the garden potato, whose large, tasty tubers are well known.
Note that this is not a case of genetic engineering and the hairy potato is not a GMO. The crosses were carried out by transferring pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of another, then selecting the best progeny for more crosses, etc., a slow process that has taken over 30 years. In other words, this is the same age-old tradition that has given us the vegetables we know and grow today. Yes, even including heritage vegetables!
The first variety released, ‘Prince Hairy’ (pause while you laugh over the joke) has not been very successful, partly because is a very late variety (130 to 140 days), not adapted to growing many regions.
Its successor, ‘King Harry’, is closer to the goal. It’s 70–90 day yellow-skinned, white-fleshed potato, that has caught on with American organic gardeners. Several suppliers offer it, including Wood Prairie Farm, The Maine Potato Lady and Pine Tree Garden Seeds. It is not, as far as I know, available in Canada or Europe yet. So put pressure on your local potato supplier to make it happen!
Other varieties are under development.
In My Crystal Ball…
Will the potato of the future be hairy?
Maybe not on large-scale farms. They’ve learned to control potato pests with massive insecticide treatments and are reluctant to change. However, for home gardeners looking to produce potatoes that require a minimal use of pesticides, yes. I really think this kind of potato could well become the classic vegetable garden type. It’s just a matter of time!