Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Identifying Edible Air Potatoes in the Wild

I get asked regularly about "edible air potatoes" since I've mentioned finding and eating them.

They do grow wild here and there in patches across Florida. Both the hanging "air potatoes" and the roots beneath the ground are edible.

The confusion over which ones are edible and which ones aren't results from the fact that we have two main "air potatoes" growing wind in the state of Florida: one potential toxic and one that's safe.

This is where Latin names really come in handy.

The edible type is called Dioscorea alata.

The generally non-edible variety is Dioscorea bulbifera. (I say "generally non-edible" because there are in fact wonderfully productive and safe cultivars of D. bulbifera - you'll just have a hard time finding them in the wild and consuming them safely without a laboratory)

There's a different look to the leaves, but the dead giveaway is the bulbils that form in late summer and fall. D. alata bulbils look like this:

D. bulbifera bulbils look like this:

So basically, if your bulbils are nice-looking, they're probably the inedible type. You want dark, ugly things, not nice round asteroid-like bulbils.

My wish-I'd-met-her unknown gardening gal Helen Parkey was growing D. alata.

D. bulbifera doesn't usually produce much in the way of underground tubers here in Florida... but D. alata can make awesome, delicious roots that are the perfect ingredient for the best hashbrowns ever.

Rycamor and I found that one growing beneath a large oak in a backyard. Very tasty.

This plant is propagated via cuttings and via planting the hanging bulbils in the fall. Overseas it's a staple crop. Here in the land of the free, however, this plant is on the invasive species list so it can't be sold by nurseries. Fortunately, it can be found growing wild at this time of year and the bulbils are easy to identify. 

Chase the vine down to the ground and start digging for free food - you'll please your local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and your tastebuds at the same time. 

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At October 1, 2014 at 9:40 AM , Blogger jean said...

"Land of the free"? But, you can't sell D. alata because it's an invasive food. Go figure. Maybe they'll change their minds when food prices are so high, people will need the "invasive" foods that grow wild : ) Enjoy yours!

At October 1, 2014 at 10:00 AM , Blogger David The Good said...

Yeah. It's silly.


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