They're OK to eat, but a large crop of heirloom Tlingit potatoes grown this year in Juneau will not be distributed for seed because the tubers have a virus.
Potatoes from all four of the plots at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum tested positive for both PVX and Pot LV - viruses that can be spread on pant legs, shovels, birds or even in the wind as plants blow and touch each other.
It sounds scientific and even sort of scary, but if you're a lay potato eater, it shouldn't cause alarm, said Jodie Anderson, director of the community horticulture program for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"It's very tasty," she said of the potato that has probably been grown in Southeast Alaska for hundreds of years. "There are no problems at all for human consumption."
But for those who commercially grow potatoes - and there are several regions in the state where folks do make a living digging spuds - a potato virus is bad news.
The potato variety grown at the arboretum and at the Gruening Park Community Garden this summer is called "Maria's Potato" since it came back to Juneau through Maria Miller, a Tlingit woman from Haines.
Arboretum manager Merrill Jensen planted four rows this year after getting seed potatoes from residents Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, who received seed potatoes from Miller in 1994.
DNA testing showed the potatoes were similar to two other Native American varieties - the Ozette potato from the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state and another potato from Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island.
Jensen (no relation to the arboretum's namesake) had hoped communities around the region could replant some of this year's crop and grow their own potato patches, but after the positive virus test the university is not recommending it.
What happens is the titer - the amount of virus contained in the potato - can become stronger over time, and also infect other varieties of potatoes in the region, Anderson said.
"Over time, all the potatoes grown in Southeast could have the same virus," she said.
Anderson said the virus could be genetically removed and clean seed made available for planting in the future, which the UAF Cooperative Extension office in Juneau plans to do. The process could take a few years and would have unknown costs, said Darren Snyder, with the UAF Cooperative Extension office in Juneau.
The virus hits the crop yield, hence the concern for commercial growers.
The largest potato grower in Alaska is in the Matanuska-Susitna valley. Potatoes also are grown in Alaska in Delta Junction and the Tanana Valley.
"Certainly it's a long shot for someone in Juneau (to pick up the virus and) go to the Mat-Su valley, but it could happen," Anderson said.
Science aside, there's a plan afoot to celebrate the crop as a culturally significant food.
"We want people to enjoy these and to celebrate them and to have them," Snyder said.
He and Jensen both said there has been a lot of interest in the crop.
"People are excited about it, the history and cultural value," Snyder said. "I look forward to being part of trying to include everyone who's interested in the project."
Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or email@example.com.
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