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When it first appeared, the potato was classified as a form of truffle or underground fungus. This confusion led to several European names for the potato. Kartoffel, the German name for potato, as well as its Russian counterpart kartochki, both derive from the Italian word tartufulo, which means truffle. Even the word “tuber” comes from the same mistaken source. This drawing is reproduced from one of the earliest books on mushrooms: Franciscus Van Sterbeeck's Theatrum Fungorum, published in 1675. It was originally made for Clusius in 1601, but was not used because it was lost in the printer's office. It shows that even as recently as 300 years ago, Europeans still thought that potatoes were some form of fungus.
The potato reached Spain sometime before 1570. It was planted as an oddity in a monastery garden in Seville. In 1576, defying Spanish export restrictions, Charles de Lecluse (Clusius) smuggled two tubers and a seedling plant out of Spain. Later, this famous Austrian plant collector gave the potato special mention in his health food manual, Rariorum Plantarum Historia. But publicity was not enough. Most of Europe treated the potato with apathy and then with hostility. Peasants lived with starvation for two centuries before embracing the plant.
For example, in 1756 bad weather threatened to destroy Prussia's wheat,