A Mania for Potato Flowers
by Christopher Cumo of Canton, OH
Native to the Andes Mountains, the potato has nourished people for millennia. In the 18th century the French found a new use for potatoes. Queen Marie Antoinette delighted in the beauty of potato flowers, wearing them in her hair. Her husband, King Louis XVI pinned them on his lapel and the nobility and commoners followed suit. Those who had money bought china emblazoned with images of potato flowers. Artists painted them on the walls of palaces and other lavish buildings. Ordinary people kept bouquets of potato flowers in vases. Almost overnight the potato created a sensation by being both a food and an ornamental.
I have grown potatoes in my garden for many years and agree with the French: the flowers are gorgeous. They may be white, pink, red, blue and purple. I favor Yukon Gold, which produces purple flowers with brilliant yellow anthers and stigmas. Perhaps I am biased, but I don’t think any other flower is so beautiful.
I encourage home gardeners and hobby farmers to return to the potato for food and as an ornamental. In practice this idea makes sense because one reproduces potatoes almost always from eyes. In this sense the flower is superfluous. But by converting it to an ornamental the gardener may reap additional income. Flower purveyor Linda Tobey believes that any type of flower has the potential to yield at least $2 per square foot of land. Writer Craig Wallin puts the figure at $8 per square foot. Three hundred to $500 for a season is not out of reach.
The question may not be whether the potato grower can make money but how much. “I fully agree with you that [potato flowers] are beautiful,” remarks Michelle Wieferich, Communications Coordinator for Michigan Potato. But she is not sure how robust the market is. The only way to know is to test the market. In this context Carolyn, a Master Gardener at The Ohio State University Extension Service urges potato growers to “approach local florists or farmers’ markets or other alternative agricultural sales points to find out if they have advice or an audience for your flowers.”
This solid advice resonates with Lynn Bycernak of Grow Flowers for Profit. Her primary council is to approach the local farmers’ market, an institution that is nearly ubiquitous throughout the United States. She thinks flowers in general do best in urban markets, where the demand for fresh flowers is high. Because one may grow potatoes in any backyard no matter the size or the temperate zone, the flowers can easily be conveyed to city markets. Here the hobby farmers or home gardener can sell not only the flowers but also the potatoes themselves. In this setting a single potato doubles as food and flower.
Another option, as OSU Extension observes, is the local florist. Bycernak urges the grower to flip through the phone book to target retailers. These are the markets that hanker for local produce and who emphasize the sale of fresh flowers, needs that the potato flower easily satisfies. The grower should visit each florist, offering fresh flowers and a business card. In a short time the potato grower may have not one but several clients. The emphasis on the uniqueness of potato flowers is critical. Any florist may carry roses or carnations, but potato flowers add a novelty to the roster of flowers. The florist diversifies and you make money.
One might even query wholesalers, though the quantity of flowers must be large and so may not be appropriate for those new to growing potatoes and their flowers. Wholesalers also aim for the lowest price, which may be a disincentive to potato growers. Conversely, wholesalers may be the largest market for fresh flowers and so remain an option for people who grow lots of potatoes and consequently have many flowers.
Supermarkets are also possibilities and again sell a high volume of flowers. The key is to learn whether your supermarket, perhaps it is a chain store, buys locally. Odds are that it does because of the need for fresh flowers. Finally one might become an independent entrepreneur. Build your own flower stand. If you cannot monitor it all day, and many people are too busy to devote hours to this activity, establish sales along the lines of an honors system. Alternatively an adolescent may be able to monitor the stand when you can’t.
Perhaps potato mania will sweep the United States as it did France.