The importance of our potato heritage

What do the following names have in common? – Robinta, Irish Cobbler, Winston and Lumper.

The answer is they are all traditional potato varieties that have long since been grown commercially in this part of the world. But one man, who has devoted his life to ensuring that these vitally important ‘gene pools’ are maintained for future plant breeding purposes is  Yorkshire man David Langford. Now living in Co Mayo, his display – comprising fresh tuber samples from 50 of the rarest potato varieties to be found in Europe today – was a highlight of last weekend’s ‘Celebration of Potatoes’, held at the Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim.

And the display was truly breath taking in terms of the myriad shapes and colour of the potatoes featured therein. Skin colours ranged from deep red and pink at one end of the spectrum through to white, yellow and blue at the other. Complementing all of this was the widely differing geometries of the tubers. Today we are used to seeing a uniform selection of oval shaped potatoes featuring in shop displays. But one hundred and fifty years ago, our forefathers would have been as likely to be digging potatoes with shapes that were wholly defined by the contours of the soil in which they were growing.

“I have been collecting heritage potato varieties for the past forty years,” David told Agriland.

“Starting in England, I moved on to Scotland and then to Ireland a number of years ago. My collection comprises 220 varieties, the oldest of which is” Irish Apple”, dating back to 1768.

“All of the varieties are grown annually in the walled garden at Lissadell House in Co Sligo. I am passionate about potatoes. And they are not just part of the Irish psyche. In my opinion the spud can help feed the world.

“But potatoes must have a sustainable future. And that means coming up with varieties that will produce higher yields from reduced applications of chemical fertilisers. We also need to develop varieties that are inherently resistant to blight. But in looking to the future, we must look to the past. The genetic traits found within the potato varieties that were grown historically in this country can supply the answers to the challenges facing us today. This is why the heritage collection at Lissadell is so important.”

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