Potato: What You Should Know About Potato Fruits

Potato berries are most commonly green

Overview

  • Potato plants sometimes flower and then form berries.
  • Potato berries form only in favorable weather and with sufficient pollination.
  • Potato berries contain seeds that you can grow.
  • The berries are toxic and should not be eaten.
  • There is not usually any reason to remove the berries from the plant.

Whenever the weather has been unusually cool, people report seeing something unusual on their potato plants: berries.  Potato berries look a lot like small, green tomatoes.  These are known variously as seed balls, potato apples, potato tomatoes, or simply as berries, which is the most accurate description, botanically speaking.  Tomatoes and potatoes are both members of the same genus, Solanum, and they both produce berries.  We eat the berries of tomatoes, but we don’t eat the berries of potatoes because they are somewhat toxic.  Unlike tomatoes, potato berries are small, rarely much exceeding an inch in diameter.  Most remain green at maturity, but some varieties turn purple.

If you were surprised to see berries on your potato plants, you are not alone.  Potatoes are normally grown from seed tubers, so many people have never given much thought to the matter of actual seeds of the potato plant.  When you grow a plant from a tuber, it is a clone.  Every plant of a particular potato variety is, in a very real sense, part of the same original plant.  But potatoes can also reproduce sexually.  They flower and, if the flower is pollinated, later produce a berry that can contain several hundred true potato seeds.  Unlike planting a potato from a tuber, a potato plant grown from seed is new and unique.  Potatoes are not true breeding like many crops that are grown from seeds.  Seed grown potatoes will have different characteristics than their parents.  This is the foundation of potato breeding.  New varieties are first grown from seed and then propagated from tubers.

It can be a little difficult to find information about potato berries and seeds because we call the tubers that we plant “seed potatoes.”  There is a lot more information about seed potatoes than potato seeds, but search engines can’t really tell the difference between the two.  We call potato seeds “true potato seeds” or TPS to better differentiate.  They may also be called “botanical potato seeds.”

Potato berries can also be blue, becoming almost black as they ripen

Even if you have grown potatoes for years, you might never have seen berries.  For one thing, you might simply have never looked for them if you didn’t know about them. There are several factors that are important to berry production:

Climate

Potatoes are native to cool, temperate areas in South America.  The most significant ancestor of the modern potato is the group of potatoes that were domesticated in coastal Chile.  Those potatoes, in turn, were produced from varieties native to the Andes.  Both areas share a cool and often humid climate.  Potatoes flower and form berries best under their native conditions, so when the temperature stays under 80 degrees with high humidity, plants tend to flower much more abundantly.

Sterility

Many modern potato varieties have sterile pollen.  These “male sterile” varieties will not produce berries unless there is another fertile variety present that can pollinate them.  People tend to notice berries when they begin to grow multiple varieties, which can cross pollinate.  If you have grown the potatoes or true potato seeds that we offer, you are much more likely to see berries on your plants than you would be with commercial varieties, because we have excluded many sterile varieties.

Pollination

Potatoes are most effectively pollinated by bumblebees, which perform a specialized “buzz pollination,” where they vibrate their wings very quickly to dislodge pollen from the flower.  Other pollinators, like honey bees, don’t do this, so they are poor pollinators for potatoes.  If you have noticed more bumblebee activity, that might explain the sudden appearance of potato berries.

Genetics

Humans have selected potatoes for heavy yields of large tubers.  In contrast, wild potatoes often produce a much greater yield of berries than tubers.  Through those thousands of years of selection, we probably didn’t care much about berries, since we don’t eat them or use them to propagate the plants in most cases.  As a consequence, domesticated potatoes have often “forgotten” how to reproduce sexually.  Many varieties rarely or never flower even in ideal conditions.  Some flower but fail to hold their berries.  Something like 10% of modern potato varieties are reliable flowerers.

Disease

Potatoes accumulate diseases, particularly viruses, over time.  Those viruses decrease the yield of the plant, but they also often decrease the ability of the plant to flower.  You are more likely to see flowering with fresh, certified seed potatoes than you are with a variety from which you have saved tubers for multiple years because certified seed tubers most likely have a lower disease burden.

Common Questions About Potato Berries

Red potato berries are pretty uncommon, but also possible

How Toxic Are The Berries?

Potatoes form toxic substances called glycoalkaloids.  They are produced in small amounts in the tubers, but typically much higher amounts in the foliage and the berries.  Berries have about 10 times the level of glycoalkaloids as the tubers of commercial varieties (Friedman 1992) although the levels in both berries and tubers vary significantly with variety and growing conditions.  Potato tubers are considered safe when they contain less than 200 milligrams of glykoalkaloids per kilogram of tubers.  Berries may range in glykoalkaloid content from as little as 177 mg/kg to 1350 mg/kg or more (Coxon 1981).

Some people begin to experience symptoms of toxicity at about 1 mg per kg of body weight (Ruprich 2009).  Based upon those amounts, a sixty kilogram (132 lb) person could consume somewhere between 40 and 300 grams (1.4 to 10.5 ounces) without developing symptoms, depending on the actual level of glykoalkaloids in the berries.  An adult who eats a few potato berries might not have any symptoms or might spend an unpleasant few hours with vomiting and diarrhea.   Of course, potato berries are much less tested than tubers, so you should definitely contact your doctor if you have eaten potato berries.  The situation is likely to be more serious for children, since they can more easily accumulate a high dose for their body weight, so make sure that they understand that the berries are not edible.

Most potato varieties form only a few berries, but some can produce hundreds. These berries were all collected from the same plant.

Berries do not affect toxicity in the rest of the potato plant.  The tubers are just as edible as always.

Should I Remove The Berries?

Probably not.  It isn’t a common practice.  If you have young children and you are worried that they might eat the berries, that is probably the best reason.

Berry production may reduce tuber yield by diverting resources into sexual reproduction (Tekalign 2005), but the difference is generally not significant.  Tuber production and berry production both begin following flowering, so there is competition for the plant’s energy between the two.  In practice, farmers do not normally perform reproductive pruning of potato crops, even with varieties that fruit heavily, since the cost of the work involved would exceed the value of the difference in yield.  In general, the heavier the berry production in a variety, the greater the potential reduction in yield.  If you are only growing a few plants, you could remove flowers before they form berries and you might get a little boost.  Most varieties produce so few berries that you won’t see any difference.

What Are They Good For?

A pile of several hundred true potato seeds (TPS)
Seeds extracted from potato berries

As with many plants that we normally propagate from vegetative parts, like tree and small fruits, asparagus, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, and others, the seeds of potato plants don’t grow true.  That means that when you grow a plant from those seeds, the tubers are not the same as what you started with.  In fact, every plant grown from seed is an entirely new variety.  Very few will be as good as what you started with when compared across a wide variety of traits, but many will be perfectly acceptable to home gardeners who like to be a little adventurous.

Will The Berries Lead to Weeds?

Maybe, but it is more likely that you will have problems with plants growing from tubers that you missed than from seeds.  If you don’t collect the mature berries and allow them to fall on the ground, some will rot and release their seeds into the soil.  If you live in a climate that doesn’t have long, deep freezes, those seeds can survive the winter and germinate.  Normally, because the number of berries is small and the survival rate is low, volunteer seedlings are unusual.  If you have a variety that produces lots of berries and you live in a mild climate, you could get lots of seedlings.  This has happened here on occasion.

How Do You Get the Seeds Out of the Berries?

There are several ways to go about this.  The simplest is to wait until the berries are fully ripe and very soft and just squeeze the seeds out.  You can also use any method for saving tomato seeds.  If you want very clean seeds that are suitable for long term storage, you can extract them with a blender and treat them with detergent to break down substances that inhibit germination.

How Do You Grow True Potato Seeds?

The process overall is similar to starting tomatoes from seed.  For more information, see our growing guide for true potato seed.

 

7 thoughts on “Potato: What You Should Know About Potato Fruits

  1. Pingback: Tendrils: Unusual fruit, earthworms on Mars, sea turtles & ice cream

  2. Ken Wood says:

    I have heard that the Chinese are raising consistent potatoes from true seed. Do you know how they managed it, if true?

    For our farmstead use, I prefer keeping the genetic possibilities of growing multiple varieties and saving TPS for a day when I have too much disease buildup in my tubers. As that point approaches I would grow out a bunch of seedlings and start the winnowing process to identify a few with traits that work for me in this (changing) climate. For example, though I live on an island in the Salish Sea (Pacific Northwest) we are having ever dryer summers and I really need a late, keeper potato that can get it’s vegetative growth in early, before the summer drought begins but not keel over from the lack of water and then put on some good tuber growth when the fall rains start up. I help somewhat with cultivation practices: straw mulch, deep planting of tuber pieces, etc. But there seems to be a wide variety of drought tolerance in the 50+ varieties I have grown (mostly from Tom Wagner’s breeding projects) Unfortunately, the very best drought test producer, Black Ball, has so much glycoalkaloid in the tuber that I can’t eat it! Big beautiful dark, dark blue black potatoes with not a drop of irrigation, but inedible! Ozette was 2nd best producer in the drought tolerance test and no toxin problem.

    Speaking of the Ozette potato, the story we have is it has been grown by the native people of the Olympic peninsula since the 1500’s (they actually say “forever” but there is no evidence any further back than post Spanish contact) My question to you is: how did they manage to keep growing from tubers for 500 years without disease building up to terminal levels? If it was by growing from TPS, how is it that Ozette potatoes are so consistent?

    I just discovered your site from the Plant Breeding for Permaculture facebook page and I’m looking forward to reading all your posts! Thanks for sharing your adventures in plant breeding!

    Sincerely,

    Ken Wood
    Orcas Island

    • Bill Whitson says:

      Hey Ken. I don’t know about the Chinese, but potatoes have been grown as a field crop from true seed since at least the 1970s. It’s just not a popular option because the amount of work required to start seeds and transplant seedlings greatly exceeds that of dropping a seed tuber in the ground. Some lines have been bred so that the progeny are all very similar, even though they aren’t genetically uniform (which is basically impossible with potato). It has advantages where there is not a sufficient or affordable supply of disease-free seed tubers, but that isn’t the case in most of the bigger potato producing countries.

      Your Black Ball sounds like a good candidate for further breeding. If you cross it with varieties that have reasonable drought performance and less bitterness, at least some of the progeny should come out in the middle on those traits. It is unusual for domesticated potato to have very high glycoalkaloids, so it probably doesn’t need to be reduced very much to drop into the palatable range. We have very similar climates in the summer – we often have no precipitation other than fog from June to September.

      Ozette is thought to have been in this country since about 1792, when the Spanish built a short-lived fort at Neah Bay. Genetically, it groups with Chilean potatoes, so it was likely brought along from Spanish Chile. The Spanish left the next year and the potato stayed. It’s longevity can likely be attributed to the lack of potato pathogens in the area, other than whatever it might have brought. It doesn’t have very good virus resistance in general, but the Makah were (and still are) a long way from any major potato production areas. It does seem to be very well adapted to our climate, which isn’t too surprising since it has had more than 200 years to adjust. Genetic analyses of this variety at the extents of its range – well up the coast of BC – haven’t found much difference, so it isn’t likely that it was propagated from true seed. It is also a very tricky variety to get berries from, in general. It is probably part of an unbroken line of vegetative propagation going back before it landed on this continent.

  3. Julie Eros says:

    My daughter and I just planted a tuber in early spring it yielded 2 plants that’s covered in berries. The tuber was just a potato growing ears from the large bag we got at a local shop we are going to try and grow some more plants from true potatoes seeds hopefully we get some great tasting potatoes

    • bill says:

      Well, true potato seeds are the basis of potato breeding, so there is actually quite a lot of work done with them. Major potato breeding programs sometimes grow hundreds of thousands of plants from seed. As for why it isn’t more common among non-specialists like gardeners, farmers, and nurseries, I think knowledge has been the biggest barrier for a long time. Until recently, almost every gardening book that even mentioned true potato seeds said something like, “you can grow potatoes from seed, but they won’t be any good so don’t bother.” That really couldn’t be further from the truth. We have to show people what is possible when growing from seed so that they will be interested to try it and we have to give them good instructions so that they will be successful. There has been a huge increase in this kind of information in the past decade, so I expect that growing potatoes from seed will continue to become more popular.

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