The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Fall a time to celebrate sweet potatoes

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Each season manifests into a celebration of whatever fruits and vegetables are in opportune abundance. Spring is strawberries and asparagus. Summer is tomatoes and peppers and fall is apples and sweet potatoes. No wonder sweet potatoes make it on to Thanksgiving tables.

Sweet potatoes are a traditional holiday treat that can easily be grown in our area during the summer. They are among the tender, warm season vegetables that love hot, dry summer weather. Although probably no one but a horticulturist cares, sweet potatoes are not tubers (thickened underground stems) such as white potatoes. Sweet potatoes, Ipomea batatas, are actually tuberous roots. (Now you know what horticulturists discuss at dinner parties and why a room full of horticulturists is oddly entertaining.)

Looking for a low calorie nutritious food? Sweet potatoes not only add color to meals, but are also an excellent source of beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A, and a good source of vitamin C. One baked sweet potato has 118 calories, no fat and three times the recommended daily allowance for vitamin A. Many people think of candied yams or sweet potatoes mashed and covered with marshmallows as a holiday tradition. But, sweet potatoes can be baked, boiled, broiled, stuffed, steamed, stir-fried, microwaved or served raw. I like them cooked with apples or in place of a baked white potato.

Sweet potatoes are one of the most important food crops in tropical and sub-tropical countries where both the roots and tender shoots are eaten. Commercial production in the United States is mainly in the southern states, especially North Carolina and Louisiana.

Although in the marketplace the names sweet potato and yam are used interchangeably, these come from two unrelated plants. I guess using the term "yams" requires less signage and spelling concerns. Seldom found in local stores, the true yam, Dioscorea sp., is an entirely different but vital food plant that grows only in the tropics and produces a starchy, rough and scaly root.

The vines of sweet potatoes are reminiscent of their relatives, the morning glories. Luckily sweet potatoes don't have the weedy habits of their cousins. The trailing vines quickly cover the soil. Bush varieties have shorter vines and are good for limited space areas.

Sweet potato vines possess striking luxuriant leaves. Many ornamental cultivars are available for use as groundcovers or to add color and texture to containers. Several new cultivars are better behaved in containers and are not the billowing bullies of old. As you tidy outdoor containers in the fall you may find your ornamental sweet potatoes have formed large tuberous roots. Yes, these are edible, but since the plants were selected for their ornamental appeal and not their edible appeal their taste is reminiscent of cardboard. Mind you I have never eaten cardboard, but you get the idea.

Fortunately many edible sweet potato varieties have been selected for their superior taste, yield and storage qualities. Though orange colored varieties are the most common today, white or very light yellow fleshed types were once considered the finest types.

If you still have sweet potatoes in the ground after frost, don't wait any longer to dig them. Usually sweet potatoes are dug before the first frost. Cold soil temperatures quickly lessen the keeping quality of the roots. For good storage potential, sweet potatoes should be cured at 80-90 degrees for 10 days and then stored cool at 55-60 degrees and high humidity. Add sweet potatoes to your list of easy, tasty and attractive plants to grow in the garden.

Turn in your Master Gardener application today. Training in Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties starts the end of January 2016 in three locations; Champaign, Danville and Onarga. Apply online Questions? Contact Ava Heap (217.333.7672); Jenney Hanrahan (217.442.8615) or Trent Hawker (815.268.4051).

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