a potato showing the eyes with small buds

What Are Potato Eyes

Potatoes are a popular vegetable in the home garden as many people routinely eat potatoes with meat and poultry dishes. According to Statista, the average American consumed 29.3 pounds of fresh potatoes in 2021. While many were purchased, many were also grown in the home garden. Growing potatoes involves planting either whole or cut sections of a potato tuber, but not just any cut section will grow into a new potato plant. A potato tuber’s cut section needs at least one eye to sprout and grow.

What are potato eyes?

If you look closely at a potato tuber, you will probably notice it has several dimples or indentations on the surface. You may even notice a little coloured bump in the center of the indentation. This is where the sprouts form to allow the potato to grow into a new potato plant. This indentation is the eye of the potato. It is irrelevant if it has the bud or sprout protruding from the potato or not.

The term eye probably originated because the indentation looks like an eye, especially when a tiny bud begins to form.

a comparison between two potatoes - one with eyes and buds and the other with no eyes and no buds
A comparison between two potatoes – the one on the right showing the eyes with small buds growing from them and the potato on the left with no eyes or buds showing.

Do all potatoes have eyes?

Potatoes produce vegetatively and need the eye to sprout and grow. All potatoes have eyes. However, some potatoes you purchase in the store may be treated with a bud suppressant chemical to prevent sprouting. They still have the dimples or indentations where a sprout would normally grow, but if they have been treated, the potato tuber will not produce buds or shoots.

Why do potatoes grow sprouts from the eyes?

Potatoes need a dormancy period before they bud and send out sprouts from the eyes. First, enzymes in the potato break down some of the starch into sugar. When conditions are right (a warm, dark place — like a kitchen cabinet or under the soil), the potato uses the energy from the sugar to grow buds that elongate and grow into the stem of a new potato plant.

Are a sprout and a bud the same thing?

Sprouts and buds both form from the eye of the potato. The bud, a tiny bump that may look reddish, forms first. As the bud grows, it becomes a sprout. Sprouts may be white or reddish-white. Eventually, the sprout produces leaves and becomes the main stem of the new potato plant.

The difference between a bud and a sprout on a potato is simply the stage of growth or the terminology used to describe it. There is no magical moment when the bud suddenly becomes a sprout, although gardeners typically refer to the first growth above the ground as a sprout when potatoes are planted in the soil.

Can I eat a potato with sprouts on it?

The buds and sprouts on a potato contain toxic chemicals that could make you sick if consumed, but the rest of the potato is safe to eat. You can safely eat the potato by removing the sprouts and carefully cutting away any buds or growths from the dimples on the potato.

It should be noted, however, that as the sprouts grow, they rob the tuber of its sugars. The potato may become soft or shriveled and lack flavor. As a rule, if your potatoes have a few buds or sprouts on them but are otherwise firm and healthy-looking, cutting off the buds or sprouts and eating the potato shouldn’t be a concern. However, soft, mushy, or shriveled potatoes should not be eaten.

Can you plant potatoes that have sprouted?

Sprouted potatoes will grow if you plant them in soil. Use care not to disturb or break the sprouts as you place them in the soil. White buds are brittle and will break easily – green buds are more leafy and flexible – place the potatoes in an area with more daylight to do this. Cover them with 4 inches of fresh soil and gently firm around the potato tuber and its sprouts. The sprouts will continue to grow and emerge from the soil in a week or two and grow into a new potato plant.

Potatoes purchased in the grocery store for consumption may introduce diseases to your garden as they have not been certified as disease-free. While they are safe to eat, they may carry diseases that show up in the growing plants. It is recommended that you purchase certified seed potatoes for growing potatoes in your garden.

If you choose to plant sprouted potatoes from the grocery store, plant them in a bucket or at a safe distance from your regular potatoes in the garden to avoid introducing diseases.

a rooster potato with strong buds growing from the eyes.
A Rooster potato with strong buds forming from the eyes. These buds should not be allowed to get any longer before planting. The potato needs to be placed in an area of daylight to green and soften the buds.

How do you cut potatoes for planting?

Large potatoes can be cut into several smaller sections for planting, increasing the number of plants you can grow from one potato. However, each section needs at least one eye to grow. It is generally best to cut your potatoes into quarters containing two to four eyes as new sprouts emerge from each eye.

Plant the cut potato with the cut side down, and the eyes are facing up.

Can you plant a potato with a section with only one eye?

While you can technically grow a potato plant from a cut section with one eye, it will likely produce a weaker plant. In addition, not all eyes sprout readily when the tuber is planted. Aiming for two to four eyes on each cut section increases the likelihood of growing a healthy, vigorous potato plant.

Can you plant potato peelings that have sprouts on them?

Planting the peelings and attached sprouts of potatoes is not advisable. The sprouts need energy from the tuber to grow until they have produced leaves and can perform photosynthesis on their own. While you may be lucky and get a plant from a thick peeling with sprouts on it, usually peelings do not contain enough of the tuber to provide energy for the growing sprouts to form a fully functioning potato plant.

Summary

Whether you call the indentations where a bud forms and grows on a potato the eye, or you only call it an eye when the bud forms is simply a matter of semantics. Both refer to the same location on the potato tuber. Keep in mind the eye is the potato’s way of reproducing. If you are preparing to plant potatoes using cut potatoes, ensure there are two to four eyes on each cut seed for each intended potato plant.