The Sweet Potato
Nature Bulletin No. 169-A November 14, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
THE SWEET POTATO
When the Spanish explorers first came to the New World they were
searching for an ocean route to India and its fabled treasures of gold,
silver, spices and jewels. They found them on these two new
continents, North and South America, but they found many other
things far more valuable, including three of the world' s most
important food plants: corn, the white or Irish potato, and the sweet
a tropical plant, the sweet potato probably was found before the
Irish potato -- by Columbus in the West Indies, by Balboa in Central
America, and by Pizarro in Peru. Like corn, it was not found growing
wild, but it had been cultivated by the Incan and pre-Incan races for
thousands of years. They had developed many varieties, as is shown by
their ancient pottery. In most places in Latin America, the sweet
potato is called "camote", but the Incans called it "batata" and that is
apparently the origin of our word "potato".
The sweet potato was carried back to Spain and thence to Italy, from
where it spread to Austria, Germany, Belgium and England before the
first Irish potatoes arrived. It took 200 years for the English to accept
Irish potatoes as being fit for human food, but the sweet potato
immediately became a rare and expensive delicacy. Now it is widely
grown in Asiatic lands, including Japan and southern Russia, in the
warmer Pacific islands, in tropical America, and in the United States
as far north as New Jersey.
Outside of the tropics, sweet potatoes thrive only in the warmer
temperate climates, and do best in a loose sandy soil that is well
drained. They produce seed only in the tropical climates. In northern
climates, new plants are obtained by planting roots, or cuttings of the
vines, in beds. The sprouts that form are pulled and transplanted to
fields one sprout to a "hill". Once well started, they require little
moisture and, unless attacked by the numerous diseases and insect
pests to which they are subject, develop many potatoes in each hill.
Sweet potatoes produce more pounds of food per acre than any other
cultivated plant, including corn and the Irish potato. More nourishing
than Irish potatoes because they contain more sugars and fats, they are
a universal food in tropical America, and in our southern states where
they are baked, candied, boiled and even fried. Vast quantities are
canned for consumption in the United States. Of the 200 or more
varieties there are two main types. The "Jersey" and related varieties
having dry mealy flesh are favored in the northern states. The other
type, more watery but richer in sugar and more soft and gelatinous
when cooked, is favored in our southern states where they are called
"yams". The true yam, however, originated in China and is a different
plant related to the lilies. The Irish potato, believe it or not, belongs to
the Nighshade Family.
The sweet potato botanicaly, belongs to the Morning Glory family.
There is another member of this family, a native weed known in
Illinois and Indiana as "wild potato vine", "wild sweet potato" or
"man-of-the-earth", with an enormous fleshy root much esteemed as
food by the Indians. Above ground, the sweet potato develops creeping
twining vines with pink or purple blossoms like those of the morning
glory. Its thick starchy roots develop into the tubers we call "sweet
potatoes". These contain carotene, the chemical which produces the
orange colors in autumn leaves and in carrots. The Indians in Latin
America make a beautiful permanent red dye from the mixed juices of
limes and sweet potatoes.
Said the sweet potato to the Irish potato: "You're no potato! I yam. "
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Update: June 2012