Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are large, sweet-tasting, starchy, tubers that grow under soil attached to a sprawling vine with heart-shaped leaves. While we eat them like potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), they are actually not a potato. Sweet potatoes are a member of the Convolvulaceae plant family and are more closely related to morning glories than potatoes. Potatoes are in the nightshade family, and are more closely related to eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers.
Sweet potatoes thrive in warm climates, and they continue to be a culturally significant food in the American South, where they have been grown by indigenous people, European colonists, and enslaved people, and farmers for hundreds of years.
Photo from the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, Pleasant Valley Farm, By Pattie Garrett
History and Facts
Sweet potatoes are said to have originated from South America where they have been eaten for over 5,000 years. From there, sweet potatoes spread to Polynesia and the Pacific Islands, and later to North America and Europe. There is evidence that sweet potatoes were spread by Polynesians across the Pacific pre-European contact, but the most widely accepted theory is that sweet potato plants crossed the Pacific by wind, water, or animals.
Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing Europe to the sweet potato around 1500. By the mid 1600’s sweet potatoes were widely cultivated in the wearmer, southern parts of Europe. Indigenous people in North America also grew and ate sweet potatoes, and evidence shows that it was a staple crop in the modern day American south by the 1700’s.
Sweet potatoes prefer warmer climates, so they thrived in the more southern areas. Because of this, they were a popular crop grown by enslaved people on plantations. They were a relatively hardy crop to grow, and Black farmers continued to grow them after enslavement. As noted by George Washington Carver in a publication dated March 1910 called “Possibilities of the Sweet Potato in Macon County, Alabama.”
The confusion between sweet potatoes and yams in the US began in the 1930’s when Louisiana, farmers decided to market their sweet potatoes as “yams” to differentiate their product and to better appeal to African-Americans. Yams and sweet potatoes are not the same thing. Yams are a different root vegetable in the monocot plant family that originated from and is very popular in West Africa. Yams are more closely related to wheat and are more neutral-flavored. The USDA still allows sweet potatoes to be marketed as yams, as long as the term “sweet potato” is also on the packaging.
How Sweet Potatoes are Grown
Today, China is the top global producer, harvesting over 78 million tons a year, followed by Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. The United States produces about 3.7 million tons of them each year, half of which are grown in North Carolina, the number one producing US state.
Sweet potatoes are the root of an herbaceous vine. They are less susceptible to pests than other crops, but can be impacted by disease. They prefer warm, light soil, and warm weather and take up to 80-120 days to grow and mature before they can be harvested. In the Adirondacks, this is a very small time-frame, as may growers only anticipate a growing season with around 100-150 days between the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall. Because of this, crops grown in the Adirondack region may be a little smaller than what you’re used to seeing in the grocery store. They are just as tasty, and arguably easier to cook with.
Sweet potatoes are harvested around the time of the first frost in the fall, and are then “cured” in a warm storage area to toughen the skins and sweeten their flesh. After curing, they can keep for up to 10 months in storage. Any local sweet potato you’re buying now was harvested this fall, and has been kept fresh in climate-controlled storage.
Sweet potato harvest at Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams, NY, photo by Ben Stechschulte
3 Ways to Enjoy Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a delicious, healthy veggie that can be enjoyed well into the winter in the Adirondacks. They are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They are easy to prepare, and can win over even the pickiest eaters. A few simple methods to prepare them are listed below:
Quickly Steamed in the Microwave
Simply scrub a medium-sized sweet potato under running water and pat dry. Poke several holes all over the sweet potato with a fork or sharp knife. Microwave on high for about 2-5 minutes and let rest for 3 minutes. Cut open and enjoy with a little salt and butter or whatever toppings you like!
Mac and Cheese
Using steamed or baked sweet potato flesh in a cheese sauce for homemade mac and cheese is a really tasty way to enjoy this fiber-rich veggie. The sweet potato adds a little sweetness, adds a vibrant orange color. You would never know there is half the cheese in this recipe.
The flesh of steamed or baked sweet potatoes also makes a creamy and sweet addition to hummus and dips. This recipe combines them with chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice to make a delicious, creamy, sweet, tangy dip.
Photo from thekitchn.com by Joe Lingeman & Jesse Szewczyk
Where to Buy
Wherever local veggies are sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, local food retail locations, and farmstands open during the winter at AdirondackHarvest.com.
Do you enjoy sweet potatoes? Comment below and let us know.