A Tuber Worthy of a Feast

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener I do enjoy sweet potatoes and just a plain baked sweet potato with some butter. The taste is so good it doesn’t need all that sweet stuff in my opinion. It has commonly been thought that it was Columbus who first brought the sweet potato from the Caribbean to Europe but the sweet potato had traveled much earlier. But first let us clear up the real difference between a yam and a sweet potato. I’ve read that people tend to think of the sweeter orange types as sweet potatoes and the whiter drier types as yams. That has not been my experience. I’ve found that the smaller sweet potatoes are called just that and the larger ones are referred to as yams, generally with disgust. In actuality they are both sweet potatoes. Yams come from Africa and are enormous, up to five feet long. According to the University of Missouri “Yams (Dioscorea species) are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated in tropical regions of the world for their starchy tubers”. Yams are rarely sold in American markets. Sweet potatoes Ipomea batatas are in the Convolvulaceae or morning glory family and hail from South America.
The bright color of sweet potato vines make a beautiful addition to the vegetable garden. Let’s explore the trail of this well-traveled plant. Pat Kirch, an archeologist at the University of Berkeley, California, says "There's a lot of evidence accumulating over the last 10 years that the Polynesians made landfall in South America. "We think they had sophisticated, double-hulled canoes — like very large catamarans — which could carry 80 or more people and be out to sea for months." DNA of 1,245 sweet potato varieties from Asia and the Americas has been studied. Researchers have found through genetics that the root vegetable made it all the way to Polynesia from the Andes nearly 400 years before the Spanish traveled to the area. As published in the National Academy of Sciences, there is more evidence that ancient Polynesians may have visited South American well before Europeans landed on the continent. To give Columbus his due, he did bring sweet potatoes to Europe from his fourth journey to the New World when he visited Honduras and Yucatan. The sweet potato was grown extensively by Native Americans as far back as the 1700’s. It is documented in the book Native American Ethnobotany specifically that the Cherokee and Seminole used the tuber as food. In Virginia, sweet potatoes were grown as far back as 1648. It traveled throughout the eastern United States. Because the plant requires warm temperatures to grow, sweet potatoes became more popular in the south than the north. I am going to admit that deer love the sweet potato vines as much as our cows do. Therefore, if you decide to grow this tasty treat be sure to make the area unattractive to deer. Our neighbor put up some stakes and strung rope encircling the sweet potato bed. He then tied hot pink plastic ribbons about every 12”. It worked and we are going to try this idea next year. The University of Vermont suggests encircling the area with pungent smelling plants that deer don’t like such as artemisia, tansy and yarrow or herbs including mint, thyme, tarragon, oregano, dill and chives. Artemisia, tansy, mint and oregano can overtake an area. However, except for dill, all of these plants are perennial so could be planted in pots which can be moved to harvest the sweet potatoes. I will caution you, whatever deer proof method you decide to use, make sure it is something that will stop the deer but not be harmful to you. I want to thank Master Gardener Agnes Gregory for doing the research for this article. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, including the Halifax VCE Office, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked daily and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and cook some sweet potatoes for a delicious, nutritious treat.