Growing Sweet Potatoes

Nutritious and high-producing, sweet potatoes are a rewarding root crop to grow.

  • MOLOKAI PURPLE Sweet Potatoes have broken up with their long term partner, marshmallows, to become the next great super food.
    Photo courtesy
  • Molokai Purple Hash with Toasted Pistachios INGREDIENTS: 1 Molokai purple potato, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 heirloom carrot chopped small, 1 garlic clove, 1 heirloom apple chopped small, 1/2 onion chopped small, sea salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 rib of celery chopped small, 1 teaspoon ground sumac, drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar, spring fresh thyme, drizzle of truffle oil, 1 teaspoon pistachios, 1 tablespoon dried cranberries PREPARATION: 1. Peel and small chop sweet potatoes, 2. Dice onions, garlic, carrots, apples and celery 3. Heat sauté pan on high heat and caramelize potatoes pull and reserve 4. Drizzle more olive oil and sauté the rest of ingredients on high heat until well browned 5. Mix all ingredients in bowl and add picked thyme leaf 6. Top dish with fresh chopped pistachios
    Photo courtesy
  • Sweet potato vines make a beautiful ground cover, they easily out compete weeds. The leaves and stems of the sweet potato plant are edible and high in vitamins.
    Photo courtesy
  • Purple sweet potatoes are super high in anthocyanin, an antioxidant believed to help prevent certain cancers.
    Photo courtesy
  • Okinawa Purple Sweet Potatoes are now beloved in Hawaii, as well as their homeland, Okinawa, Japan. This variety is believed to have been grown for over 400 years, coloring generations of Japanese cakes, ice cream and all sorts of food. A favorite at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and one of their best selling items in 2015.
    Photo courtesy
  • The Jersey Yellow sweet potato is an old fashioned variety believed to be grown in Southern New Jersey as early as the 1780s. The flesh is dry and not as sweet as the saccharine southern varieties.
    Photo courtesy

The sweet potato is a delicious and generous root crop. It is a plant with the potential to prevent measles and childhood blindness in Africa, and has been referred to as “food that ends famine quickly” in a Hawaiian proverb. It is a heroic plant, with an illustrious future ahead of it as an affordable and nutritious food source that can withstand harsh growing conditions, yet much of the history of this valiant root crop remains a mystery. Could this humble root, most famously found hiding under a blanket of marshmallows on the Thanksgiving dinner table, have a super-food secret identity?

Although they are native to the same geographic location, the sweet potato and the “Irish potato” are not closely related. The sweet potato is actually a member of the morning glory family, while the “Irish potato” is a close relative of tomatoes and eggplants. Many refer to the sweet potato as a tuber, which is a thickened stem much like the tubers of a regular potato plant. In fact, sweet potatoes are the swollen and starch filled roots of the sweet potato plant, not a stem at all.  Finally, the most muddled sweet potato myth: the yam, sweet potato or not? Often a fleshy southern variety of sweet potato is incorrectly referred to as a yam. The yam is actually an African native tuber that is related to lilies and grasses It has a much thicker stem, it cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit and it grows much larger than sweet potatoes. The confusion began when southern farmers decided to call their sweet potato variety yams in order to set their varieties apart from Northern varieties. 

Much confusion surrounds the history and origins of the sweet potato. Carbon dating has taught us that the sweet potato has been domesticated in Central America for at least 5,000 years. However, a wild ancestor of the domesticated root has never been found. The exact native range of the wild sweet potato ancestor remains a mystery. However, there is now strong evidence that the sweet potato may be native to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico and the Orinoco River of Venezuela. This theory stems from the fact that there is a great deal more molecular diversity in sweet potatoes from this area than in South America, where the sweet potato was first observed by Europeans.

Sweet potato and the “regular” potato, as well as corn managed to catch the eye of Spanish conquistadors in the 1400s. The sweet potato was immediately recognized as an exotic delicacy when introduced to Europe. Conversely, the starchy white potato was not embraced in Europe until well after the sweet potato was established. After its 1492 introduction to Europe, the sweet potato spread to Africa by the 1500s, and to North America and Asia by the 1600s.

Europeans are credited with the dispersal of the sweet potato and many other crops from the Americas to the rest of the world. However, an entirely different group of people have been found to have visited South America and brought this botanical jewel home for cultivation. It has been discovered that Polynesians had been cultivating a South American variety of sweet potato at least four hundred years before Europeans.

Captain James Cook visited Polynesia in the 1760s. He was fascinated to find civilizations inhabiting far flung islands far into the Pacific Ocean. Cook returned to London with samples of the sweet potatoes that he had found Polynesians cultivating. The genetic makeup of these 18th century sweet potato remains were recently examined and found to be from AD 1000 to AD 1100. The potato remnants are believed to have descended from Peruvian and Ecuadorian varieties. This piece of living evidence suggests that Polynesians made an incredible 5,000 mile journey to South America, and returned to the Pacific Islands to cultivate the crop. There is also compelling linguistic evidence to back up this almost unbelievable theory. There is a close relation between the words “Kuumala”, the Polynesian name for sweet potato, and “kumara”, a native South American word for the same root.

Become a Preferred Subscriber and start enjoying the benefits today!

Fall in love with the flavor, versatility, and beauty of Mother Earth Gardener

Mother Earth GardenerDelight your taste buds, mind and eyes with beautiful photos and inspirational techniques on everything you need to know to grow, preserve and cook your own heirloom fruits and vegetables. You won’t want to miss the stories about plants passed down from generation to generation.

Don’t miss a single issue of Mother Earth Gardener. Published by the editors of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Mother Earth Gardener provides decades of organic gardening experience from the most trusted voices in the field. Join today and save off the newsstand price! Get one year (4 issues) for only $24.95! (USA only)

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube