Heirloom Varieties Perfect for Planting Sweet Potatoes

Learn about planting sweet potatoes, sweet potato slips and even a purple sweet potato in this detailed look at sweet potatoes.

  • Cooking with leaves from sweet potato plants adds another layer of nutrition to meals.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
  • Covington is good for mashing or roasting.
    Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Use All-Purple sweet potatoes for a different take on side dishes.
    Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • The Ginseng sweet potato likes growing in the Virginia soil.
    Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • The white Violetta has a sweet and nutty flavor.
  • Carolina Ruby sweet potatoes provide a quick turnaround.
    Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Columbus had no idea how much he would change the world when he landed on what he thought was the East Indian island shore. Thanks to his confused sense of geography, several garden staples spread across the world, notably maize, tomatoes, peppers, Irish potatoes, and the unsung hero of the garden — sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes, or yams as many people call them, create more than a little confusion with their name. They’re not yams at all — African vegetables related to lilies, which are never grown in America — and they aren’t even related to Irish, or “true,” potatoes, either. They are, however, the first vegetable to be called “potato,” thanks to their Native American name, “batatas.” Their botanical name, Ipomoea batatas, reflects that early name.

Ipomoea includes morning glories and some moonflowers as well as two edible cousins, Asian native water spinach, and Man-of-the-Earth, a North American wildflower. The broader family, Convolvulaceae, contains more than 2,700 species across 85 genera.

The sweet potato is a groundcover vine originally from tropical Central and South America. Its vines tumble rampantly across the ground, but cannot climb wires or structures like morning glory or cypress vines. A sweet potato’s roots are a fibrous mass, stretching 8 feet or more from its crown. Like potatoes, the sweet potato is often called a “tuber”; more accurately, it’s a “tuberous root,” a thickened section of root, without a potato’s eyes.

Sweet potatoes display an astonishing diversity. Their leaves can be shaped like hearts, arrowheads, palmetto fronds, or just about anything in between. Leaf color can be just as varied, ranging from pale lime green to purplish-black. The potatoes can also be white, yellow, orange, pink, red or purple.

Around the world

After Columbus carried sweet potato roots back to the Spanish Court, batatas quickly became all the rage on Europe’s banquet tables. On the other side of the globe, Spanish trade galleons sailing to the Orient carried sweet potato provisions, and colonies in the Philippines planted sweet potatoes in great quantity.

8/3/2016 11:03:19 AM

Love the Sweetie Pie sweet potato variety here in Kansas!

3/15/2016 9:25:17 PM

Any time, Annette!

3/14/2016 7:04:11 PM

Thank you Andrew for your informative article. I, along with many others appreciate your efforts to bring us this article. I am growing sweet potato at the moment. Again, thank you and have a great day, from Annette from Australia :-)

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