—The Rohan Potato—
A Remarkable Story
About A Lost Tuber
(circa 1840)

Dateline: 27 February 2016 AD

My interest in the Rohan potato came when I read the following account in my 1840 edition of Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanac…

The Rohan Potato, it seems, has but lately been introduced into this country from France. Its greatest recommendation, it seems, is its wonderful productiveness. And surely, this is of the utmost importance to the farmer, who cultivates them to feed out to his cattle. The quality of the potato we do not find very highly spoken of, otherwise than its being a very solid potato; by some it is classed as the second, and by others the third, among our northern potatoes for the table. We cannot speak of its peculiar properties and flavor, having never raised or tasted of them; would have cultivated them had I seed at hand. But they are vastly more productive than any other potato known in this country if what is stated in an account given of them at Hampshire fair, in October, 1838, and we have no reason to doubt the fact to be relied on, that Mr. E. Mitchell, from 4 pounds of seed potatoes, raised 18 bushels, weighing 1,173 1/2 pounds—this is an enormous yield—no doubt they were planted in a rich soil. But still, it is almost incredible, being an increase of almost three hundred fold. 
     This potato, being a native of France, will require early planting, say the first of May; they of course will require a longer time to ripen in. The Rohan Potato, of all the other varieties yet known, seems to promise to be a great acquisition to the farmer who raises potatoes for feeding out to his cattle.—It is therefore my sincere wish that my brother farmers would make a fair trial of them, as I propose to do the coming year. —Ed.

Here's the exact excerpt as it appears in the almanac...

When I read that only 4 pounds of seed yielded over three quarters of a ton of potatoes, my assumption was that someone had been pulling the almanac editor’s leg. 

I figured a Google search might provide more information on this Rohan story, and it did. The following excerpt comes from the 1839 issue of The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, And All Useful Discoveries And Improvements in Rural Affairs.

Some Observations on the Rohan Potato. By William Kenrick.

The Rohan potato, which is said to have originated in Switzerland, is so named for the prince of Rohan, and is supposed to be the most productive potato in the world. This potato grows very large, and the quality, though not superior, is good, or in precise conformity to the description of Judge Buel, which I have subjoined. The tops grow with great luxuriance, and corresponding to the produce of the potato—therefore the hills should be allowed wide space, that the rays of the sun be not wholly excluded from the soil. The ground for their reception should be ploughed early, fine, and deep, and, for the production of a great crop in our climate, they must be planted early, or as soon as the ground is sufficiently warmed for their reception; but two eyes being sufficient to plant a hill.
     The seed of those which I now send you, was imported by me, late in the spring of 1837, direct from France; this being the second importation of the season, the first having perished on the passage. They were, consequently, planted late; yet, nevertheless, produced an abundant crop. Two potatoes of the same, which were cut up in single eyes and planted by my brother, at the same late season produced five pecks. This year, the Rohan potatoes yielded me a large crop, while other kinds yielded not one third of a crop.
     Of the great productiveness of this potato, we have many extraordinary accounts. Mr. Harger is stated to have raised one hundred and forty-four pounds from thirteen ounces of seed; and, as we are informed, some of his tubers thus raised, were sold at the horticultural fair at New Haven, at one dollar each; and from a single potato divided into eyes, the Hon. William Clark, of Northampton, has raised a barrel.
     Judge Buel, the able and indefatigable editor of The Cultivator, fully concurs in recommending deep ploughing and early planting, as essential to the production of great crops of Rohan. I subjoin a few extracts from his remarks:—
     “We have cultivated the Rohan potato two seasons, and feel justified in recommending them as a valuable acquisition to our husbandry.
     “First,—Because of their quality, for the table, will justify it. If not superior, they are good. The flesh is yellow, solid and of good flavor.
     “Secondly,—Because they admit of a great economy in seed; two eyes sufficing (and many of the tubers have from thirty to forty eyes,) to plant a hill, and three or four bushels to plant an acre of ground.
     “Thirdly,—Because they require comparatively little labor in harvesting; a man being able to dig thrice as many of them in a day as of ordinary kinds. The tubers are very large, one hundred and ten of the largest of our crop completely filling a flour barrel. Twenty-seven bushels were dug in our presence in one hour, the tops being pulled, by one man, at moderate labor.
     “Forthly,—Because they yield an abundant crop. From eighty-five rods of ground we gathered one hundred and seventy-five bushels, while our common cultivated kinds did not yield us half a crop.”

Respectfully, your friend and humble servant, William Kenrick.
Nonantum Hill, Newton, Dec. 25, 1838.

Since our remarks upon this variety, in the early part of our last volume, a great many experiments have been made in its cultivation, and the result of all is, that it has been proved to be the most decidedly prolific potato ever raised. —Ed.

The next reference I found about the Rohan potato comes from the Annual Report of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, Volume 14 of 1859…

The Rohan potato was a coarse-grained tuber, and was exceedingly productive, but entirely unfit for the table. Should the time ever come when stock growers shall consider succulent food for cattle in winter time to be desirable, the Rohan potato might answer a good purpose to be mixed with turnips or artichokes. It is not probable that any plant was created in vain; and the prejudice against this species of potato may have arisen from the fact that its proper use had not yet been determined. No one who has ever seen or tasted a Rohan will recommend it as a desirable article of culture, or that land or labor should be devoted to it at present.

This final excerpt comes from a more recent book (1994), Essays on The Early History of Plant Pathology and Mycology in Canada

With such well-publicized failures of the potato crop in mind, it is understandable that some growers, grasping at straws, would tend to believe stories about “wonder potatoes”—potatoes that would not succumb to the dreaded blight and give higher yields than any other variety. Just such a “miracle” variety appeared on the scene around 1837. It was known as the Rohan Potato, and so many people were trying to purchase a few tubers that the editor of the Commercial News and General Advertiser of Saint John, in the issue of 13 November 1839, made reference to the “Rohan Potato mania” that had broken out in Fredericton. In Ontario, the fame of the Rohan increased when the 14 November 1839, issue of the Brockville Recorder reported a farmer as stating: “while the blight has, long since, killed almost every kind of potato growing, which was planted as early as these Rohans, they have continued to flourish.” Yet, though stories about the Rohan Potato were common in the farm papers of eastern Canada for several years prior to the appearance of the late blight disease that is induced by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, apparently it was as susceptible as most other varieties to that fungus, because it was seldom mentioned after 1844.

And there you have the curious historical account of a remarkably vigorous and productive potato that apparently really did exist. Unfortunately, we will never know the whole story.

This is the almanac in which I first read about the Rohan potato.


Grandma Zee said...

How very interesting, I wonder if some where there is someone raising a few of these. Wouldn't it be great to find some and bring it back into production.
Thank you for all your interesting stories and information.

James Johnson said...

Elizabeth L. Johnson said,
Yes, Herrick, have you found a source for the Rohan? I will also search online. Thanks so much for the post.

deborah harvey said...

if first brought from france perhaps it is still grown there maybe under a different name?

St Ba said...

I have emailed seedsavers to see if they can track it down.

Tucanae Services said...

I would love to get my hands on that spud if the production is as high as they say it is. That kind of return would be a fantastic fodder crop. US is too centered around cereals as a food stock.