Survival Plant Profile: Sweet Potatoes
The sweet potato is widely grown as an annual across the south - yet it's a perennial here in Florida. A relative of the morning glory, the sweet potato is highly nutritious, calorie-filled, packs less of a glycemic hit than grains, cassava or potatoes and stores excellently. However, it doesn't like frost, so you're not going to get any growth during the winter. And don't plant them too early the first year - it's better to wait until there's absolutely no chance of freezing your tender young starts.
Speaking of "tender young starts," anyone ever stuck a few toothpicks into a sweet potato from the store, stuck it in a glass, then watched the buds turn into vines? If not, grab a potato and try it. The new vines that form can be broken off and planted in the ground once they get a couple of inches long. The potato will continue producing new ones for months. These little vines are called "slips." Make sure to keep them watered and shaded as they get established. Once they're established, they'll grow like weeds. I know people will tell you all kinds of things about harvest times, etc., but I usually pull sweet potatoes in November... or when I get tired of their vines covering everything. I follow the vines and pull up all I can. Invariably I've left some in the ground that return the next year, and that's fine.
One thing I recently discovered is that sweet potatoes are pretty bland until you let them sit and age for a while. When you dig the potatoes, let them sit out for a little while to dry, then put them in a basket, dirty or not. After a few weeks' storage they'll sweeten up. They keep for a long time under cool dry conditions, too. Months and months. I've stored them for six months and still had decent roots to eat, despite what you read about short storage times.
Another benefit to the sweet potato: its leaves are edible raw or cooked. We eat sweet potato leaves in our salads all summer and fall. They don't have a lot of flavor, but they're a great salad stuffer and have a pleasant crunchy texture, provided you don't pick when they've been wilted by the sun.
This plant is excellent all around - just don't eat the roots raw. They won't kill you, but they do have some anti-nutrients that are removed during cooking. FYI.
True story: the picture at the top of the little sweet potatoes in water was taken in my greenhouse this spring. I bought an organic "sweet potato assortment" in shrink-wrap at Publix. It was a total gimmicky thing with a few small different-colored roots in a row, selling for the ridiculous price of $2 and change, ready-to-microwave! I thought "heck with that - I can grab about 5 cultivars of sweet potato in one fell swoop and PLANT THEM!"
So I did, and had some very interesting varieties growing in the garden this year. The picture to the above right was most of this year's harvest. God is good! (And sweet potatoes aren't half bad either.)
Latin Name: Ipomoea batatas
Type: Vining perennial
Size: Vines easily crawl 15-25'
Nitrogen Fixer: No
Exposure: Full sun/part shade. Lots of sun is the best.
Part Used: Roots, leaves
Propagation: Slips, cuttings, roots
Method of preparation: Roots cooked, leaves raw or cooked
Ease of growing: Easy