At the start of our summer in France I was rightly taken to task. Jeni, our house guest, chided me for failing to take care of a wrinkled potato. Against all odds, the potato, which was no bigger than a walnut, had survived the winter in a cupboard and later, in a search for daylight, had produced a spindly sprout that was now nearly a yard long; 34 inches to be precise. I removed the potato and, without any regard for its evident staying power, placed it and its sprout on a sun-bathed table top.

The potato’s journey was unusual. Every year in June we store our harvested ‘first early’ potatoes in the bottom draw of a kitchen unit. From there, potatoes are taken as needed for use over the summer. It was when cleaning out the draw in preparation for this year’s new crop that I discovered the shrunken and wrinkled ‘walnut’ perched, almost hiding, high on a ledge. As I pulled it out, its pink sprout, with its pale side shoots and head, trailed on and on behind. I kept expecting the sprout to snap but it remained intact. I felt that such a remarkable sprout deserved to be seen by others – hence its table-top position.

It was on the table in the sun that, a week later, the potato was found by Jeni. In her view the potato, now even more shrivelled, deserved more. It was clearly a fighter and a survivor and she saw my approach as thoughtless, even callous. I was, she argued, only interested in the potato as a quirky specimen to be ogled at; its place as an integral part of nature was, it appeared, of little or no interest to me. I should have helped it to survive and thrive, even to reproduce. Instead I had left it to die from desiccation. Why hadn’t I planted it in the soil and given it a chance to produce more tubers? 

Jeni formulated a set of parables which applied to the potato and, ingeniously also to human beings . First, don’t judge things by appearances; remember that something or somebody who looks odd or old and seems fit only for the compost heap of life can be surprisingly productive.

Second, don’t write off things or people – they may have hidden depths. Just give them the right conditions in which to flourish. 

Third, always give plants or people another chance no matter how hopeless the situation looks at first glance. Just believe in them and their determination. Like the potato, they could well be ‘goers’ and their drive to survive and thrive should be honoured and respected; they should never be overlooked. By its very tenacity this potato had earned the right to be helped.

Fourth, never waste (potential) food; in a world where there is both food shortage and food wastage, not giving a sprouting potato the opportunity to provide sustenance was simply wrong. Perhaps the New Testament story about loaves and fishes started with just a small lump of sourdough culture and a pregnant minnow!

Finally, in keeping with the sentiment of the adage ‘from tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow’; nutritious crops from wizened potatoes might do the same.

With these in mind, Jeni and my wife Rohan carried the potato to the vegetable plot where they planted it with some ceremony. Its sprout was spread out to its full length and laid in a shallow ditch across the width of a bed with its ends marked out by garden labels. Within weeks two shoots with their characteristic potato-green leaves appeared and after three months four, pink, Désirée potatoes were harvested (see the illustration).

The potato was, indeed, a ‘goer’, and of its progeny the two larger ones were eaten in homemade fish cakes and the others two carefully put aside for planting next year. These are now very precious.

My mistreatment of a wizened potato has raised any number of questions about my behaviour and how it could be improved. I certainly can’t see myself overlooking the needs of a courageous potato again! In a world where our environment is threatened and where our treatment of others is so often wanting, lessons from this episode and from my blasé approach are unlikely to be forgotten.

The illustration shows, on the left, the wizened potato with its coiled sprout. On the right are the four Désirée potatoes we dug up three months later.

For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Jeni, Monica, Rohan and Vivien.

8 thoughts on “Lessons from a Wizened Potato

  1. Hello Joe
    When I started to read this I had no idea it would turn into a story with so many important messages and that the example itself would be so illustrative of them all. I’m grateful to be reminded of them. It’s a gem!

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  2. Loved this post! So glad the Wizened One’s progeny continue down the generations… It put me in mind of that story of a couple of years ago where a couple found an incredibly long earthworm in their garden, likewise about a yard long as I recall, and gave it to the Natural History Museum which promptly killed it! And put it in formalin. There were howls of outrage. Do you remember it? Anyhow, it was in stark contrast to your careful nurturing of your shrivelled but gallant potato, and they might have reaped similar rewards if they too had acquired the perspective of your lovely house-guest and nurtured the worm…

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    1. Dear Merrily, This is the first I have heard about the Natural History Museum’s heartless behaviour. Sadly, they did not have Jeni to put them straight. Did you know that the said Jeni lives not far from you? Many thanks for your kind comments.
      Love, Joe

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  3. What a remarkable outcome – both in terms of the lessons to be learned from the wizened potato and the abundance it subsequently provided. What a crop! That potato lives on and on: in our minds, in its progeny (and the progeny’s progeny) and, perhaps more fleetingly, in your bellies. A further lesson in continuity? Lovely philosophical tale, Joe, thank you! JJ X

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  4. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comment. You are right to say that we need consideration, care and nurturing. If Trump and Johnson complied would that mean that they would necessarily be honest, consistent and unthreatening? Love, Joe

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