While this love might not be romantic in the usual way, this “sweetie” is a delicious one.
Ipomoea batatas, sweetpotatoes* (correctly combined into one word, see link at end), belong to the Convolvulaceae family (morning glory, chokeweed and water spinach). They’ve long been loved and grown around the world for thousands of years.
Although Columbus brought sweetpotatoes to Europe in the 15th century, Native Americans had grown them thousands of years before European immigrants arrived. The earliest records indicate they were cultivated in 750 BC in Peru.
Peter Martyr noted Yucatan and Honduran Native Americans growing 9 varieties of sweetpotatoes in 1514. Taken to Spain, more varieties – including red, purple and white – were cultivated. Cultivation failed in England’s cold, wet climate.
Enslaved West Africans in North America adapted their yam recipes to sweetpotatoes. Soon they became staples of Southern diets and recipes for all classes. Since they were easily grown, sweetpotatoes shielded southerners against starvation during lean times and were vital for poor populations. They were easily stored beneath dirt mounds in winter. Paired with greens, they provided nearly all essential nutrients.
In the early 20th century, Washington Carver issued 50 bulletins featuring 118 products he invented from sweetpotatoes, such as molasses, vinegar and shoe blacking. His 1936 sweetpotato pie recipe was a prototype for modern versions.
Although sweetpotatoes have roots similar to yams (Dioscorea), they’re totally different plants. Unfortunately, the term “yam” has become a marketing misnomer for selling sweetpotatoes with deeper skin and flesh colors. (The marketing of Zante currants, which are actually raisins, has left black currants with a similar fate. But that’s another story for the Gardening Gourmet). Potatoes are also another plant altogether (Solanum tubersosum) which can cause some confusion.
Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes (and purple-fleshed) are nutrient-rich with antioxidant beta carotene, loaded with vitamins B and C, packed with potassium and high in fiber. Their low glycemic index contributes to fewer immediate spikes in blood glucose levels.
Plants are propagated via sprouting slips coaxed from mature sweetpotatoes. Slips can be purchased, but your own are most reliable. Start slips from your preferred variety of organic sweetpotato. Avoid commercial sweetpotatoes, which are often sprayed with sprout inhibitors.
Start sprouting 6-8 weeks before planting so they’ll be ready at the right time. Wilted purchased slips need immediate planting – even if it’s too early.
One sweetpotato grows around 15 slips. Each slip makes a plant that produces about 60 sweetpotatoes.
Sprout slips by burying the roots horizontally halfway deep in moist sterile seed mix placed on a heat mat beneath grow lights. Sprouts will form in about a week if you keep the seed mix moist. Another approach is to place a sweetpotato vertically (narrower root-end down) halfway in glass of water (like sprouting an avocado seed) set beneath a strong light source. When sprouts are 5”-6” long, follow the seed mix procedure described earlier.
Once slips reach 5-6” long, gently cut/twist from the sweetpotato. Remove the lower leaves and place slips in a jar of water in a warm, sunny spot or beneath grow lights for root formation.
When the roots are 4” long, plant them 12”-18” apart and 4” deep in soil that’s generously amended with compost. Water thoroughly and expect sweetpotatoes in about 85-120 days, depending on variety. Remember to save some to start next season’s slips.
From their cultivation by Native Americans, their subsequent use by colonists, to today’s home gardens, it’s no wonder sweetpotatoes have been a sustenance source in the US for so many years. So why not make these “sweeties” yours too?
*Correctly Spelling “Sweetpotato”
The one-word spelling of “sweetpotato” was adopted by the national Sweetpotato Collaborators in 1989. Basically, many plants have one-word spellings since with two words, the first can be interpreted as an adjective modifying a noun. For example, “goldapple” is a tomato, and “gold apple” a variety of apple. “Sweet potato” is a sweet tasting potato, while “Sweetpotato” signifies Ipomoea batatas. For more details go to the following link: https://wendyshomeeconomics.com/sweetpotato-did-you-know-its-one-word-its-scientific/
Gardening Know How
Mobile Bay Magazine
Texas A&M University
Sweetpotato Slip Sources:
If you want to try purchased slips…
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Sprout Mountain Farms
Territorial Seed Company
Roasted Sweetpotato Strips
One large or two medium sweetpotatoes (any variety) washed, then sliced ½” thick diagonally. Cut slices into ½” strips.
Place strips in a microwave safe dish, sprinkle with water and cook covered on high about 3½ minutes. Drain off excess water. Gently rub strips with 1 teaspoon olive oil, then sprinkle with Trader Joe’s Chili Lime seasoning. Bake in a 400°F oven for about 25 minutes until lightly browned. Makes 3 to 4 servings as a healthy side dish.