Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

All About Sweet Potatoes

by Jim Wilson

Take an old cold tater and wait."

It was country singer Little Jimmy Dickens who sang this paean to sweetpotatoes, and I can tell you from experience that there is nothing quite like a leftover baked sweetpotato to divert a hungry child. Goodness! they're good -- baked, fried, or made into pies topped with marshmallows, eaten warm from the oven or as leftovers. And they're good for you, full of complex carbohydrates, vitamins and trendy goodies like beta carotene and fiber.

At one time sweetpotatoes were considered strictly a southern vegetable, but early-maturing varieties, black plastic mulches and floating row covers are making good crops possible almost anywhere.

Sweetpotato Basics

I may lose some friends by divulging these facts about sweetpotatoes. First, they are not yams, and second, the vines form roots, not tubers. I've told gardeners these facts and have had them look at me as if I've said there's no Santa Claus. But it's the gospel truth.

The confusion began with a gem of an advertising program more than a half-century ago. Commercial growers in Louisiana wanted to give their sweetpotatoes a unique product advantage so they would outsell those grown elsewhere. So, they decided to market them as "Louisiana Yams," and the name stuck -- like beggar lice to corduroy trousers.

The problem is that the two plants are nowhere near alike. True yams, members of the genus Dioscorea, are native to the tropics around the world and can't be grown without protection north of USDA Hardiness Zone 9. The roots of some yams appear to have bark for skin; their flesh is white or purplish, bland rather than sweet, and some species grow to enormous size. Sweetpotatoes, Ipomoea batatas, are native to the American tropics.

Perhaps you've noticed that I spell sweetpotato as one word whereas most gardeners make it two. Vegetable specialists prefer "sweetpotato," to distinguish the crop from any old potato that happens to taste sweet.

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