You might think you know potatoes quite well – after all, it’s a humble vegetable that has such versatility, maybe you’ve cooked them in every way you have ever wanted.
But have you ever grown them? Have you seen the flowers that the potato plant produces? You might ask why the plant even does this, when the tubers grow underground.
Yes, you turn a single potato into a whole plant by chitting it – that is, leaving it somewhere light to grow shoots, and then plant it in the ground or into a container.
But if you think about it, that doesn’t actually do anything for the original plant in terms of reproduction. Chitting it still requires you, and the plant doesn’t ‘know’ it’s being reproduced.
So potato plants produce flowers. The foliage and the flowers are useful to us in that they can act as a guide to know when to harvest the potatoes. They also give us an idea of when to increase the watering.
But what is the use of the flowers to the plant?
Why Do Potatoes Produce Flowers?
Potato plants need to flower in order to produce fruit. This is in addition to the tubers, and these fruits form on the top of the plant rather than underground.
These flowers are interesting in that they need a certain kind of pollinator in order to extract the pollen. While most potato varieties produce sterile flowers, some will produce flowers that can be pollinated.
The anthers of the potato flowers have much smaller pores. This means only certain types of pollinators are able to get at the pollen. Honeybees are not one of these.
The flower needs to be vibrated in order to release the pollen, and bumblebees vibrate their wings while they are on the flower in order to get at the pollen.
Some bees bypass this entirely. Bumblebees often nibble holes into the back of the flower, and honeybees will pinch the nectar through these holes.
If the conditions are right and the flowers have been pollinated, the flowers will turn into fruit which will resemble tomatoes, full of seeds.
That’s because tomatoes and potatoes are related – they are part of the nightshade family.
So before you start thinking about dishes you can incorporate this fruit into, or snaffling one straight off the plant, hold off. They are fruit, but they are not edible. They contain a lot of solanine, which is poisonous.
These fruits are not designed to be edible. They serve as a seed bank for potential new plants.
Hang on, though. You chit existing potatoes in order to produce a potato plant. Some gardeners use potatoes grown from the previous year, or seed potatoes.
Either method will produce an identical potato plant to the one the potato grew from.
Growing them from the seeds produced on a plant will yield unexpected results, as it’s not a copy of the original plant. It will be a hybrid, and you’ll probably get fewer potatoes, and it will take much longer to grow the plant from seed.
These plants grown from collected potato seeds haven’t been bred through years of selective breeding, which has improved taste and yield.
You might grow them from these seeds and find that the potatoes are tasteless, or there’s not very many at all. It’s a lot of time and effort – not to mention compost – to be disappointed with a crop of subpar potatoes!
It’s best to remove the fruit from the plant. That way, you’ll also get rid of the risk of any curious pets or children poisoning themselves.
Can You Eat Potato Flowers?
No. Remember that part about the potato being part of the nightshade family? Deadly nightshade? Neither the fruit nor the flowers are edible.
In fact, all parts of the plant except the actual potatoes are toxic, thanks to the solanine they contain. It causes headaches, stomach pain, diarrhea, and a whole host of other nastiness. It can kill you, if the levels are high enough.
What Do Potato Flowers Look Like?
Potato flowers are petite blooms which look very similar to the tomato flowers. Sometimes these flowers will form in clusters.
Unlike the tomato flowers, which are always yellow, potato flowers can be white, pink, or lavender. The color the flowers come in depends on the variety of the potato plant.
These flowers are a nice accent to the huge foliage that the potatoes produce, a lovely sight in any vegetable garden, though they don’t last for very long.
Should You Remove Potato Flowers?
Some people remove the flowers from the potato plant, as they believe that the energy that would be dedicated to maintaining the flower and then producing the fruit would then go to producing the tubers.
While that would make sense – after all, we deadhead spent flowers, so the plant will produce more – there’s no evidence to support this theory when it comes to potato plants.
You can remove the flowers if you wish. It won’t harm the plant or the production of tubers.
You might want to remove the flowers if you have pets or children around, as the flower itself is poisonous.
No flowers also mean that the poisonous fruit cannot form, so you won’t have to worry about children or pets accidentally poisoning themselves.
You can pinch the flowers off the plant with your fingers, or cut them off at the base of the flower stem.
It’s important not to cut off the foliage of the plant. The leaves help tell you when the tubers are ready, without digging them up too soon.
If you remove the leaves, the tubers will not get any bigger than they were at that point, and you probably won’t get any more forming.
Do Potatoes Always Produce Flowers?
No. The flowers that potato plants produce aren’t necessary for the growth of the tubers themselves – unlike tomatoes, which form from the flowers. So they don’t always form.
If you get unusually hot weather, or if you live somewhere very hot, the flowers will be very short-lived, and they most likely won’t be pollinated.
It’s not detrimental to the plant or your potato crop if they don’t appear at all.
Potato flowers tend to bloom in cool or even wet weather in summer. So seeing potato flowers can depend on where you live.
If you live in one of the warmer zones, anywhere from zone 10 through to 12, your potato flowers won’t last very long. If you live somewhere cooler, say zone 5 up to 8, you’ll probably see both the flowers and the fruit.
These flowers shouldn’t affect how well your potatoes grow from the plant.
Can You Use Potato Flowers to Tell if Potatoes are Ready?
Yes, you can use the potato flowers to judge if your potatoes are ready.
While this can depend on the variety, the general rule of thumb is that potatoes should be ready around 2 or 3 weeks after the plant produces flowers.
If you live somewhere where the plant won’t produce flowers, or only for a short window, the flowers themselves won’t be an accurate indicator.
Different varieties of potatoes will take different amounts of time. Some are designed to be harvested early in the season, and others are only ready much later.
One reliable way of checking is looking at the foliage. Wait for it to collapse, to tip over the sides of the container.
This will look messy, and it’ll go against the grain to leave it like this – after all, that’s usually how a plant tells you it’s hating where it is.
The foliage dying back in potato plants means that they are nearly ready. When the leaves are dead, the potatoes won’t grow any further. They are ready!
You can also check them by hand. Very gingerly, put your hand into the soil and feel a potato – is it firm? Is it big enough?
How Long Does it Take for Potato Plants to Flower?
Potato plants generally flower when the plant is nearly spent, not quite at the end of its lifecycle, but more when it has peaked.
It depends on the variety of the potato, and the weather conditions the plant experiences, but as a rule, these plants will bloom around 60 days after they are planted.
As the flowers have a purpose – to be pollinated – they are short-lived. The window in which they can be pollinated is short, and if a flower isn’t pollinated, it will die and make room for new growth.
What Are The Fruits That Come From Potato Flowers Like?
The fruits on a potato flower look extremely similar to that on a tomato plant. They are round, and usually get to the size of a cherry tomato.
Depending on the variety, they will usually stay green. While they could be mistaken for edible tomatoes – this is unlikely, as you should notice the difference in the leaves, in the extremely unlikely event that you forget what you planted.
The best thing to do is remove them. They are toxic, and shouldn’t be eaten under any circumstances. It’s said that these fruits are extremely bitter, another defense mechanism that the plant has to prevent you from eating them. After all, these are the seed pods, really.
The fruits serve no purpose to the casual potato grower. Unless you want to experiment with trying to grow a new species of potato, the best practice is to remove the fruit.
What Else Can Potato Flowers Indicate?
Potato flowers can also give you an indication of when the potato plant needs more water.
Since it can be difficult to judge with the potatoes being underground, you may not be sure exactly how big the potatoes are, and how much water they need.
Too little water and the potatoes will be stunted. Too much water, and the potatoes will rot.
It’s very likely that if you have flowers forming on your potato plant, the tubers underground are starting to mature.
This will mean that you can increase the amount of water you give them, which will support their continuing growth.
While the flowers of a potato plant can be a nice feature in itself, they neither help nor hinder the growth of the crop of potatoes themselves.
They can, however, be a handy indicator of how well your potatoes are growing, which is helpful when you don’t want to break open the container – especially if you’re growing them in grow bags.
They can also act as a gauge for when the potatoes need more water, and when they should be ready to harvest.
Potato flowers are poisonous, as well as the fruit that follows. They won’t harm the growth of the plant or the potatoes themselves, but you can just leave them to drop off the plant naturally. This only works, of course, if you’re sure no pets, children, or adults will try to eat them.
While they can be decent indicators of how well the potatoes are doing, they aren’t always accurate. The only way to really tell if they are accurate is to grow them for a second year, and remember how well they did in the first.
Potato flowers do add color and interest to what can be a sea of green foliage that can look messy, adding another level to the looks of your vegetable garden.