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Botanic Garden Praises The Power of the Potato

Some folks like them mashed and drizzled with piping hot gravy; others, baked with sour cream or fried into a french fry or mashed into a Pringle. But how well do you really know your potato?

The potato offers more than a delicious snack or dinner side — it’s the “most famous, popular and influential vegetable in the world,” according to a welcome sign at the new Botanic Garden exhibition “Spuds Unearthed!” The exhibit features the history of the potato and its effect on societies worldwide.

“We want people to understand why potatoes are important,” said Sally Bourrie, public programs coordinator at the Botanic Garden. “We often take for granted what we eat … but we should learn that our food is more than something we buy in the grocery.”

The exhibit was inspired by Robin Buell, professor of plant pathology at Michigan State University, said Christine Flanagan, the Botanic Garden’s public programs manager. Buell approached the garden’s staff to discuss his study of potato genome history, and the exhibit “grew from there,” Flanagan said.

“Spuds Unearthed!” features the works and hypotheses of potato botanists such as Gaspard Bauhin, who in the 16th century said potatoes were aphrodisiacs and caused leprosy and gas. Visitors can study old potato farming tools, examine a potato plant’s growth process through a shaded glass display and learn lots of potato trivia.

The potato was domesticated more than 8,000 years ago in present-day Peru. More than 7,000 kinds of potato plants grow in 140 countries and even on space shuttles, according to exhibit displays. Sales exceed $100 billion annually, and the veggie’s effect on pop culture is evident in children’s Mr. Potato Head toys and games such as Hot Potato.

The tuber even became an icon of American politics in 1992 when then-Vice President Dan Quayle visited a Trenton, N.J., spelling bee and coached a sixth grader to misspell “potato” by adding an “e” to the end.

The Botanic Garden’s exhibit also highlights the potato’s nutritional value and acclaims the veggie as a “hero of foods.” The potato, inexpensive and easily adaptable to various climates, has sustained hungry people and entire societies around the world, Bourrie said. According to exhibit signs, potatoes produce more pounds of protein per acre than wheat, corn, rice or oats and thus became a primary food source for many cultures.

“Spuds Unearthed!” runs through Oct. 11 in the East Gallery.

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