Is a Potato a Vegetable?

Gardeners sometimes get needlessly fussy over technical issues, such as is a potato is a vegetable. The short answer is yes! But even though it grows underground, it is not a root.
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How to Grow Potatoes 05:02

Joe Lamp'l shows how to plant, grow and harvest potatoes.

Within four hundred years of being introduced to Europe and the rest of the world from its native lands in South America, potatoes have become one of the most important staple foods on Earth.

Potatoes, grown in cooler climates or seasons around the world, are often thought of as roots because they usually grow in the ground. But technically they are starchy, enlarged modified stems called tubers, which grow on short branches called stolons from the lower parts of potato plants. By the way, though potato vegetable plants also flower and produce small, many-seeded berries like cherry tomatoes, all parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten. Except for the tubers.

But the question often comes up in both gardening and nutritional conversations, are potatoes a vegetable? The short and long answers are YES.

A Little Background.

The term “vegetable” is not all that old itself. It was first recorded in English in the early 1400s from an Old French word that applied to any plant, which is still biologically correct. But it was not until the 1760s that the word became established to mean a plant, edible herb, or root cultivated for food.

To many gardeners, what is or is not a vegetable is loose and arbitrary, based on cultural views and culinary traditions. What may be a vegetable in America may be considered a fruit in Italy.

However, in modern horticultural circles, any plant that is grown for its leaves, stems, roots, pods, or seeds, and has to be planted, cultivated, and harvested every year as an annual, is classified as a vegetable.

Court Ruling

There is even a legal basis for this. In the 1890s, a United States Supreme Court case determined that though some plants – specifically the tomato, but it applies to all others – were grown for their fruits, they could be identified legally as vegetables for purposes of taxation. The court decided unanimously that though a tomato is biologically a berry-type fruit, it is taxed, and therefore classified, as a vegetable.

Ditto for other fruit-producing plants grown as annuals such as watermelons, edible-pod peas, peppers, and eggplants; leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, and kale; stems of rhubarb and turnips; flowers of cauliflower and broccoli; tubers of sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes; bulbs of onions and garlic; roots of carrots and parsnips; and seeds of peas, beans, and corn. And even mushrooms, which are fungi, which aren’t always considered real plants.  

This was a big step in separating plants grown and harvested every year as annual, from those grown on longer-lived woody plants for fruits such as apples, pears, and cherries. Other major plant food types include nuts (pecans, walnuts) and grains (rice, wheat, oats, and oilseed sunflowers).

So, since it is grown as a vegetable crop, taxed as a vegetable crop, and cooked and eaten like other vegetables, the potato tuber is a vegetable. Nutritionally, horticulturally, and legally.

Odd Extra Tidbit

Potatoes are often called spuds, but where did that come from? The Medieval words “spyde” and “spad” referred to simple digging tools. Because spades were used to plant and dig potatoes, the tubers themselves eventually acquired the name spud.

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