I have been thinking a lot about potatoes lately, partly because I am growing some from seeds I saved (back in 2007) when a couple of potato plants in my yard flowered and actually set seed.
So far, my potato plants from seeds look just fine; they appear to be a lot less sturdy than the shoots that come up from seed-potatoes, but that is to be expected. The tiny true seeds contain a lot less in reserves.
I have no idea how this potato experiment is going to work out, but Carol Deppe, in her book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, tells about a guy who breeds potatoes by growing the seeds. It really is the only way (besides random mutations) to get new varieties. The seeds grow for him, and the resulting plants produce potatoes. When he digs up the potatoes and discovers a new kind that he likes, he saves the actual potatoes to replant (the usual way) to increase the numbers of potatoes in that line, until he has enough to sell or share.
James Lang, in his book Notes of a Potato Watcher, tells about a different potato breeding effort, this one by the CIP (International Potato Council), to produce disease free starts, both cleaner seed potatoes and actual seeds, for farmers in developing countries.
CIP was working on this because plants that are infected by many diseases are less productive than uninfected plants. It turns out that the true seeds are much more free of disease than seed potatoes saved from an infected field. (Not a huge surprise.)
One way farmers in the Andes traditionally addressed this disease problem was that seed potatoes were typically produced at higher altitudes, where it was colder and the disease pressure was less. Farmers at lower (warmer) altitudes bought fresh seed potatoes every few years to get cleaner stock, when their potato production dropped.
CIP’s initial effort to grow potatoes from true seeds (as a way to cut back on the disease problems) was somewhat successful, but when the little plants were set directly into the field they did not produce well. What worked better was to let the little plants develop a tiny potato each while they were in the seedbed, then to plant the tiny potatoes in the field.
In the end, the CIP did finally develop a hybrid seed that worked well without having to wait long enough that a tiny potato had formed and could be transplanted to the field.
When I saw that bit in the book about diseases in warmer areas, I thought right away about my yard here in Georgia. Saving seed potatoes would probably not be a good idea for me, even if I could manage to actually save some from each year’s crop (we eat them all). The disease pressure here is intense for many kinds of vegetables. If my growing-potato-plants-from-true-seeds experiment actually works, I will be able to avoid the expense of buying seed potatoes every year AND avoid having to worry about whether what I’ve saved from last year is ok to replant.