How to Grow Wild Potatoes
|About Wild Potatoes|
|Index of Species|
- There are roughly 100 species of wild potatoes; the exact number is always in flux as the taxonomy changes.
- There are two main concentrations of wild potato species: the Andes and the mountains of central Mexico.
- Wild potatoes are typically very small, although the plants of some species are much larger than domesticated potatoes.
- Many wild potatoes have very long stolons, which can make them difficult to manage in the ground.
- Most wild potato species are not safe to eat, other than in small amounts, due to high glycoalkaloid content.
- Wild potatoes can be hybridized with domesticated potatoes to introduce new traits.
- Wild potatoes can be propagated from tubers or seeds, but seeds are more commonly available.
As of 2018, this guide and all of the species pages are still very much drafts. They might still be useful, but it will probably take another year or two just to get them to reasonably complete. There are some species that I have been growing for years and others that I have still never gotten to germinate or survive transplant, so the project will take as long as it takes. Like every guide on the site, this will never actually be a finished product, but will continue to be updated as long as I work with the plants
This aspires to be a guide to growing and using potato species other than the domesticated potato, Solanum tuberosum. While wild potatoes are often used in potato breeding, but little effort has been put into improving them individually in comparison to S. tuberosum. To my way of thinking, this is a great opportunity for small and hobby breeders. Anyone with interest could easily choose to adopt a wild potato species and become a specialist in its cultivation and breeding. By working on each species, it would be possible to produce improved varieties. By improving size and reducing glycoalkaloid content, for example, it might be possible to introduce new species to more widespread cultivation. Improved varieties might also be used more effectively to introduce traits through breeding with S. tuberosum. Many wild traits that have been incidentally introgressed into domesticated potatoes along with targeted wild genes have proved to be valuable and, in some cases, more than the originally targeted genes (Leue 1982).
The greatest barrier to this is simply figuring out where to start. While there is abundant scientific literature about wild potato species, it is rarely summarized and is difficult for amateurs to access. I started our wild potato project in 2015 with the goal of producing summary information about each species, growing them to determine the essential details of cultivation, and taking good pictures of each species (which are almost always more useful to amateurs than botanical descriptions). I have since added the goal of making crosses, either directly or through bridge species, to S. tuberosum so that we can show what the results of first generation crosses look like.
This project is likely to take several years to complete, but I hope that when we’re done, we will have a small encyclopedia of wild species that will serve as a guide for amateur cultivation and breeding. Most of the species profiles are currently incomplete, but the details are filling in as time goes on.
Germplasm supplied by the USDA Potato Introduction Station was used in the production of these guides.
There are approximately 100 species of wild potatoes. For the purposes of this guide, a wild potato is a member of the genus Solanum that forms tubers. There are also members of the genus that do not form tubers, but I’m not including any of them. The number of wild species has been significantly reduced as a result of genetic analysis. Hawkes (1990) listed 235 species, but Spooner (2014) reduced the number to 98 true species. 110 are currently listed in this guide, including 9 additional nothospecies (natural hybrids between wild species) and 3 domesticated varieties that are hybrids with wild potatoes (S. ajanhuiri, S. curtilobum, and S. juzepczukii). Most likely this information is already out of date or will be soon. 91 species have detailed pages; the rest are not currently available in the USA, so I have not grown them. Wild potato species only grow natively in the Americas, where they range from southern Utah in the north to about the middle of Chile in the south. There are two main concentrations of these species: the Andes, from Venezuela to Argentina, and the highlands of central Mexico.
Wild potato species are not often cultivated and very little is known about most of them, relative to the domesticated potatoes. They are really interesting plants and well worth growing even if you are not interested in eating or breeding them. Many have very attractive flowers and can make interesting ornamentals. Others have features that should surprise and delight even the most experienced potato grower. Wild species range from only a few inches to more than nine feet tall. While most produce small, round tubers, some form extremely unusual long, twisting, or chained tubers. One species is an epiphyte that grows in trees! Many have round berries, but some produce long, conical, or pointed berries that look more like chili peppers.
Most wild potatoes are not considered safe to eat due to high glycoalkaloid content, although the details vary by species. Many species that have been tested have a fairly wide range of glycoalkaloid concentrations, so it is probably possible to select edible varieties from many of the wild species. You can generally stay out of trouble by not eating potatoes that are bitter, but some species may contain unknown toxic compounds that are not found in the domesticated potatoes. If you intend to experiment with eating wild species, proceed carefully.
Wild potatoes are adapted to specific climates and many fail to grow true to form when grown in a different climate. This is particularly true when plants are grown in greenhouses. Wild potatoes tend to grow unusually tall in greenhouses, which can result in a very different plant than you might expect. Plants from warmer regions tend to grow slowly when grown in cool climates and cool climate plants often fail to flower or set berries when grown in warmer climates.
Most wild potatoes have very long stolons, ranging between two and four feet. It can be very hard to harvest and manage plants that distribute tubers so widely. For this reason, wild potatoes are probably most often grown in pots. If you find pots difficult to manage, as I do, an alternative is to grow the plants in the ground in buried fabric pots. Gallon size fabric pots work very well for wild potatoes and I find that the plants are much happier growing in the ground. Stolons will occasionally try to escape over the lip of the pot, so some vigilance is required to prevent unwanted volunteers.
In most cases, the ideal germination conditions for wild potato seeds are unknown or at least unpublished. I typically use the same conditions to start wild potato seeds as I do domesticated potato seeds: a daytime temperature of 65 degrees F and a nighttime temperature of 55 degrees F. These conditions work for many wild species, but that doesn’t mean that they are the best conditions. We often see germination rates lower than 50% for wild potato species. The germination of some species is inhibited by alternating temperatures (Bamberg 2018), while other species may benefit from inverse alternation, with warmer temperatures at night and cooler during the day. The USDA Potato Introduction Station recommends a constant temperature of 68 degrees F for germination (Bamberg 2017b). Some species have prolonged, slow germination, a phenomenon known as “trickle germination.”
Wild potatoes are more often propagated by seed than by tubers because there are few improved selections of wild potato species. Tubers must be grown every year, while seeds will store for longer periods. That said, while you are actively working with a particular species, it is easy enough to keep them going by replanting tubers, just as with domesticated potatoes. The good news is that most wild potatoes are easy to grow from tubers. They generally have good dormancy, some of them much better than domesticated potatoes. The bad news is that many of the wild species are short day tuberizers, so it will be difficult to save tubers for plants grown outdoors in cold climates.
Some species are sexually dysfunctional and can only be maintained clonally. For example, most triploids will not set seed and a small number of hybrid and diploid species like Solanum ajanhuiri are effectively sterile.
Although there are some exceptions, most wild potatoes flower abundantly and will produce good seed crops. Typically, they are more reliable at forming berries than domesticated potatoes.
Bamberg (2017) studied the effect of fertilization on seed production and quality in 31 species of wild potatoes and found that supplemental fertilization substantially increased seed production but that the quality of the seed was not changed. So, if you need to produce large amounts of seed, fertilizing around flowering time may be helpful.
These species, such as S. acaule, S. albicans, S. demissum, and S. guerreroense, are typically such efficient self-pollinators that they will not easily cross with other varieties or species. They usually set a large crop of berries with no intervention. Because they are such good self-pollinators, they tend to be inbred and substantially homozygous. If you are starting from a diverse seed source and want to maintain some of that diversity, you should save seed from as many varieties as possible. You can also maintain diversity by making crosses between different accessions. This usually requires opening and emasculating the flower to prevent self-pollination.
There are relatively few diploid species with any degree of self-compatibility. If you want to maintain the level of diversity in the starting population, it is best to cross as widely as possible within that population and mix the resulting seed.
The majority of diploid wild potatoes are self-incompatible. When working with these species, you will need at least two plants that flower simultaneously in order to save seed. The good news is that you won’t have to work hard to maintain diversity with these species.
Triploid and pentaploid species are sexually dysfunctional. Pentaploids will usually set seed, but triploids rarely will. In either case, seeds will not produce plants with the same level of ploidy as the parent, so seed is not a good way to propagate these species. Seed may still be useful for breeding.
Species that do not link to a profile are currently unavailable in the USA, or at least I have been unable to obtain them. I will add them in the future if I am able to find them. This table is sortable by column. Continent shows whether the variety is from North or South America. Series shows the morphological group assigned by Hawkes. This is historical information only, as more recent genetic analyses have shown little support for prior morphological groupings. Clade shows the modern evolutionary groupings. Ploidy shows the possible levels for the species, listed in order of frequency. EBN shows the endosperm balance number for the minimum level of ploidy associated with the species (so, for example, if a species lists ploidies of 2x and 4x and an EBN of 2, that EBN is associated with the diploid (2x) level of ploidy.
|Solanum acaule||SA||Acaulia||Mixed||4x, 6x
|Solanum x aemulans||SA||Acaulia||4||3x, 4x||2|
|Solanum andreanum||SA||Tuberosa||3||2x, 4x||2, 4
|Solanum berthaultii||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum brevicaule||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 4x, 6x||2, 4
|Solanum x brucheri||SA||Tuberosa||4||3x||?|
|Solanum bulbocastanum||NA||Bulbocastana||1||2x, 3x||1|
|Solanum candolleanum||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum cardiophyllum||NA||Pinnatisecta||1||2x, 3x||1|
|Solanum chacoense||SA||Yungasense||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum commersonii||SA||Commersoniana||?||2x, 3x||1|
|Solanum x doddsii||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x||2|
|Solanum x edinense||NA||Demissa||4||5x||?|
|Solanum immite||SA||Tuberosa||3||2x, 3x||1|
|Solanum maglia||SA||Maglia||?||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum malmeanum||SA||Commersoniana||?||2x, 3x||1|
|Solanum medians||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum x michoacanum||NA||Pinnatisecta||1||2x||?|
|Solanum microdontum||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum morelliforme||NA, SA
|Solanum multiinterruptum||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum x neoweberbaueri||SA||Tuberosa||4||3x||?|
|Solanum x rechei||SA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x||?|
|Solanum x sambucinum||NA||Pinnatisecta||1||2x||?|
|Solanum simplicissimum||SA||Simplicissima (Ochoa)
|Solanum sogarandinum||SA||Megistacroloba||4||2x, 3x||2|
|Solanum x vallis-mexici||NA||Longipedicellata||?||3x||?|
|Solanum verrucosum||NA||Tuberosa||4||2x, 3x, 4x||2|
The distribution maps used in these guides are pretty gross approximations. They are suitable for understanding roughly where the species occurs in a given country, but you wouldn’t want to use them for any serious work. Maps are based on Google maps, for which Google retains the copyright.
Several people have asked (some more politely than others) why I use Imperial measurements in this guide. I am based in the United States and, for better or worse, those are the measurements that we most commonly use. It is easy enough to convert back and forth. Since these guides are written in English and not specifically targeted at a scientific crowd, I have chosen to use the measurements that will probably result in the majority of readers doing the least work. I will add metric measurements at some point, as I have done for most of the guides on this site.