While staring at a soggy leftover chip (French fry) with a rather unfortunate black blemish, my colleague pondered, “do potatoes get cancer?” This question took me by surprise as it had never occurred to me before.

To answer this question, we have to understand what cancer is. Cancer is an overall term for the diseases that are caused by abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth that have become malignant which means they are able to invade and infect other cells in the body. In humans and animals, cells can move around freely so cancers are spread around the body using the blood and lymphatic circulatory systems. Plant cells are rigid and do not move so cancer cannot occur. Therefore, potatoes cannot get cancer.


Tree with interesting burls. Photograph by Todd F Neimand

Plants can get tumours or “galls” due to bacterial, fungal, parasitic or viral infection. Tumours, unlike cancer are abnormal uncontrolled growths that are benign or in other words: non-invasive. This means the ball of abnormal cells can grow and grow but since plant cells are cannot move, the tumour can only grow in the same spot and cannot spread around the plant.

But, before you feel bad for all those plants that end up with tumours…

You should know that these tumours usually do not affect the health of the plant at all. In fact the plants can end up living for many years with a large tumour attached with no issues! Interestingly, trees that end up with large tumours are very prized in our society. These tumours are referred to as burls and due to their unique shape and aesthetically pleasing look in wooden furniture; these trees can go for sale for incredibly large sums of money.

Dashboard made from burled wood. Photograph by West Coast Classic Cougar

So, in conclusion, plants and potatoes cannot get cancer, however they can grow some interesting tumours in all shapes and sizes. Next time you’re out walking around town, take a look at the trees and see if you can spot any tumours!