On the Trail of Tiny Tubers: Tracking the Four Corners potato

For years we’ve learned that Ancestral Puebloans depended upon corn, beans, and squash, nicknamed The Three Sisters, for sustenance. Well, move over sisters. Little brother spud is about to take the stage.

With a $225,000 National Science Foundation grant, researchers at the University of Utah hope to prove that a tiny tuber, Solanum jamesii, was an important part of ancient Native diets.

This potato fits in a soup spoon. It balances on a fork. Not a big, heavy Idaho Russet baking potato, Solanum tubersuom, but a unique Four Corners potato.

Starch granules from Solanum jamesii have been found preserved on a 10,900-year-old stone metate at Escalante, UT making it the earliest known evidence of wild potato use in North America.

Ancient peoples transported, grew, and possibly domesticated this tiny tuber. 

I’ve been on the trail of this potato that may have disease-resistant and drought-resistant genes. I am fascinated by its history, its use, and its future.

Dr. Lisbeth Louderback, assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, explains, “This potato could be just as important as those we eat today not only in terms of a food plant from the past, but as a potential food source for the future.”

With an earthy, nutty taste and a skin that gets crinkly, the potato’s insides remain fluffy. The size of a penny, these potatoes “fit nicely on your spoon,” explains Louderback with a smile. In a refrigerator, the tubers keep for a year.

Because the tubers occasionally taste bitter, the Navajo and Hopis boiled the potatoes with white clay to reduce the toxic glycoalkaloids. Tribal knowledge of this food includes Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Southern Paiute, Zuni, and Zia elders.

Found in the Four Corners region and along the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona and in the highlands of New Mexico, Native Americans possibly moved the potato north into central Utah where Mormon pioneers found it in abundance. During the Great Depression, remote rural families ate the potato.

“It comes up in response to monsoons,” notes Dr. Bruce Pavlik director of conservation at Red Butte Gardens on the University of Utah campus.

When I visited him in his office he explained that the potato has the perfect “strategy of a wild plant, it disperses buds (“eyes”) up to a meter away.”

“I’ve worked a lot on conservation of landscapes and this potato captures public interest like no other project,” he says with a grin, which is why Pavlik has a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant. “We are interested in more Native American farmers who want to grow this commercially.”

At Red Butte Gardens I visited the potato experiment station with Solanum jamesii successfully growing in galvanized metal horse troughs whose interiors were covered with burlap out of Native respect for the plant not to touch metal.

The two-foot-deep horse troughs made perfect test plots and could easily be watered with a drip system. There may be five useful genotypes of this small spud; scientists are not sure, but Pavlik explains, “how lush the potatoes get if you give them water,” whereas in a natural setting by the end of August and the cessation of summer monsoons, the plant puts its energy underground.

There’s even a publication, The Four Corners Potato Gazette, “updating our partners on recent advances” including information on the archaeology, culture, and biology of this unique spud.

According to the Gazette, at a workshop this spring Native farmers “enthusiastically spoke of returning this potato to the people of the region, with cultural, spiritual, health and economic benefits.”

Hold the butter, sour cream, and chives. Nutritional data on this tiny tuber indicates it has “three times the protein, twice the vitamin B1, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese” of the standard grocery store potato.

Bigger is not necessarily better, which is why locavores will love this spud that has already been served in Utah at the Hells Backbone Grill in Boulder, the Twin Rocks Café in Bluff, and soon North Creek Grill and Fourth West Pub in Escalante will be serving it.

Where it needs to be on the menu is at the Metate Room in Mesa Verde National Park because research suggests that 1,000-years-ago Mesa Verde may have been a distribution center and genetic bank for this tuber that includes a blue-fleshed strain.

“The plants themselves stay low to the ground. They are dark brown in color with grayish blue leaves.

“We don’t plant them. They come out of the ground and we collect them,” explains former Zia Pueblo Governor and Elder Peter Pino, a director of the Mesa Verde Foundation.

“We eat them raw. Some tribal members wash and cook them. We used the potato when food was scarce and in a spring time ceremony related to cleaning our irrigation ditches.”

At a social dance, “one of the staples they took for the dance into the kivas was this potato. My mother used them in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Pino who adds, “It was the best snack for social dances in the kiva for ceremonies between ditch cleaning and before planting.

We still eat them.” The tiny tubers, well balanced in carbohydrates and proteins, may have been stashed along travel routes by Hopis because the potato represents “perfect fuel for runners,” notes Pino who says, “And it was a food source we did not tell the Spanish about.”

Vital research on Solanum jamesii continues. Both the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments may hold the key to understanding how this potato was dispersed.

The latest research technique is for archaeobotanists to visit archaeological habitation sites to look for the plant.

Last spring the plant was found in Bears Ears at a two-story cliff dwelling “where a slickrock waterfall came down into a bowl of sand” that provided habitat.

This potato is “disease-resistant, which is why the USDA is so interested, and frost tolerant unlike other potatoes,” Pavlik tells me in the University of Utah’s greenhouse where we observe the plants thriving.

He states with satisfaction, “Archaeology, plant ecology, landscape conservation. I feel my whole career has been working up to this.”

Yes, there’s a lot of spud success to share. “I really feel that traditional knowledge is as important as Western knowledge. And then there’s the value of bringing back this agricultural heritage,” Dr. Louderback tells me over dinner in Durango.

“It’s a plant species, an ancient food source that is part of the livelihood for native tribes. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) protects archaeological sites, but what about the plants that are just as sacred to the indigenous groups as the sacred sites?

“I do not want to speak for the tribes, but this is important to them, because the potato is of conservation concern in southeast Utah.”

The Natural History Museum of Utah wrote the Department of the Interior to comment on President Trump’s 2017 shrinkage of Bears Ears National Monument. Louderback explains, “There are populations [of the potato] within President Obama’s Bears Ears boundaries, but when Trump shrunk it those populations are no longer protected.”

Because the original 1906 Antiquities Act had science at the heart of Presidential land withdrawals for national monuments, the presence of this tiny tuber may be significant in the four federal lawsuits going forward to reverse the Bears Ears reduction.

In October 2019 Louderback spent two days at Mesa Verde analyzing 30 metates taken from Long House during the 1950s Wetherill Mesa Project.

She extracted residue from those metates to see if the Solanum jamesii potato starch is still present.

We should know by May 2020. Questions remain as to which spud populations have higher or lower nutritional value and which of these potatoes may have a low glycemic index to aid modern Native peoples battling diabetes.

From a snack in ancient kivas to cutting edge science vital to defending a national monument’s size, the importance of this tiny but mighty tuber, Solanum jamesii, is only now being understood.

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