Nuclear Potatoes and Further Thoughts on Strawberries

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OK, you may ask.  What am I talking about? A new potato variety called
Comrade Brezhnev?

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Or perhaps a potato produced in a place like this?  Brrrrrrr….too scary to even contemplate (that’s Three Mile Island, in case you’re wondering).

No, gardeners, I am talking about something that has just crossed my radar screen even after decades of growing potatoes.  This year I got the catalog from the fine Ellensburg, WA company Irish Eyes Garden Seeds ( and right on page two in a big, bold headline
is the following:

These small 3 gm to 1 oz  (large blueberry to golf balls) size tubers are so
vigorous when grown they will return 25 to 200 times at harvest time.”

“200 times!  What kind of magic are they practicing up there in the high desert?”thought I, and just as quick, “I’ve got to get me some of these magic potatoes!”

The page prior had more details.  Turns out that potato seed growers are allowed to grow potato seed out (to multiply it for sale, of course) up to seven seasons in a row, and that final year, when they’ve used that original potato seed to make hundreds if not thousands of times more potatoes, then they can sell it to the consumer as certified seed potato.  It is certified to contain no bacterial ring rot (thank heavens!), nor does it contain any potato tuber spindle viroid (wouldn’t want that bugger, either), but by generation 7 it may contain certain permitted levels of potato virus X,S,M, and A, as well as potato mosaic virus and potato leaf roll virus.  In other words, we’re getting what we think is a pristine product, BUT it’s really is a kind of gunked up thing that may splutter and start if we, taking on the role of ardent homesteader, try to save some of our own potato tubers and use them as “seed” (really vegetative propagation to those in the know) for a few seasons in a row.  As a farmer and gardener I had heard that “potato yields run down” from one’s own saved seed but had never understood why, assuming some kind of mysterious fundamental force that pulled things
into decline, maybe like one of the Greek Fates. Now I know what’s going on: Viruses accumulate and eventually overwhelm the capacity of the plant to produce vigorously.  Thanks, science!

All this begs a question.  What if we could travel back in time from that certified seed potato we are purchasing right now?  In the helical whirl we would see viruses X, and A, and leaf roll, and S and mosaic, and M all being “sucked out” of that seed potato until, seven generations previous, we would have arrived in potato Eden – all purity and health and no shame at having eyes all over their
bodies and such.  This would be the magic disease-free potato, a kind of Maslovian hero ready to actualize its full potato potential and produce unreasonable, even giddy, amounts of copies of itself, all for our benefit.  If you are following my line of thinking… yes, that’s right, this is the pre-nuclear potato.

Back to the Irish Eyes catalog.  They give a pretty good description about how they manage this feat.  The pre-nuclears are grown by making tissue cultures – virus-free tissue (leaf pieces, I think… have to check in on this some more…and how they get it virus-free is a whole other question) taken from existing potatoes and then grown in sterile petri dishes and finally planted into gallon pots, where it matures and produces marble-sized tubers for planting the following season. This is not dirty-jeaned farmer stuff; this is farmer-in-lab coat stuff.  But don’t think Franken Farmer, think Doctor Farmer.  The seed stock is purified with this careful technique, and then I would imagine it practically leaps from your hands into the earth when you get the package, so eager are those pre-nuclear potatoes to do their stuff.  There’s no genetic hocus-pocus involved, just plants being their amazing selves.  Unlike human tissue which can change direction only at a certain limited stage of embryonic development, plant tissue can differentiate even when mature, so cut-off stems can make new roots,  stems can make new leaves, etc., etc.  Yes, it’s perfectly normal in the plant world to be able to take a  cutting from one of its parts, like a leaf, and grow a whole new plant from it.  So relax, reader, by taking this approach you are not aiding and abetting Jurassic Potato Park.

Is your mind blown yet?  Mine is! To learn more about the generations of seed potatoes and the seed potato production pyramid (sounds like a Ponzi scheme)  go to this web site:$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/opp9642  It’s wonky, but good.  And if you want some of these limited-edition pre-nuclear potatoes, then better get over to the Irish Eyes website.  I ordered some tonight and noticed that some of their varieties – like the two I wanted – were already sold out!  Pre-nucs are more expensive, but if they live up to their billing in my garden, I won’t regret paying more.  If you can’t get some, then just watch the blog come early fall, and I’ll follow up with yield reports.  I’ll let the scale tell the tale!

Finally, let me quickly present the connection to strawberries.  My friend Weston Miller, the Oregon State University (OSU) Community and Urban Horticultural Extension Agent for the Portland metro area was kind enough to read my blog and realized that my advice to freely propagate strawberries (from my last posting) may result in the new plants suffering from the same viral fatigue that I have just taken pains to explain for the potato tribes.  He says three or four years is about tops that you can take from runners before having to buy new stock (that’s OSU’s position).  If you want to know the odd-sounding viruses that can infect strawberries and the pests that transmit them, at least in the Pacific NW, then check out this website link he sent:

So I’m going to go and check my receipts to see when I bought the original plants and see if it’s time for an update (with certified disease-free stuff, of course), or whether I can squeak by for another year.  Thanks, Weston, for gently tutoring me on the subject.