Sweet potato fries burst into popularity a few years ago, but sweet potatoes have been a staple food for quite a long time. While the crunchy version served with aioli may be new, these versatile sweet potato varieties that range in color from purple to cream-colored to orange and red have been a nutritious and tasty food for almost 5000 years. Now grown throughout the world, Ipomoea Batatas has almost 7000 known varieties.
Most sweet potatoes are grown for food, with varieties such as Japanese, Garnet, Jewel Beauregard, and Covington all grown to suit different growing areas, light and temperature requirements, and of course, taste! There are also sweet potatoes that are grown for their gorgeous vines. While this type of sweet potato won’t kill you, they are not usually grown as food and they may just turn you off to eating sweet potatoes. Those are definitely ornamentals!
Unlike most plants gardeners are familiar with, sweet potatoes aren’t commonly started by planting seeds. Sprouts called slips grow from last year’s roots when kept in the right conditions. These slips are cut off from the sweet potato and placed in water, allowing roots to grow. Once enough roots have been established, bury the root end in soil up to the first set of leaves and wait 3-4 months for some of the most delicious and nutritious foods around.
Due to a marketing campaign in the mid-1900s, orange sweet potatoes are often mislabeled as yams. But don’t let those advertisers keep you confused. Their ad campaign tried to market the delicious and sweet orange-skinned sweet potato and keep it separate in the minds of customers from other white or yellow sweet potatoes. Most yams are Dioscorea species, not Ipomoea.
Sweet potatoes come from a completely different family than the potato as well. While sweet potatoes come from the morning glory family, potatoes come from the nightshade family along with tomatoes. This explains the vastly different levels of nutrition delivered by each. Overall, the sweet potato takes first place in the nutritional department.
Good Products For Growing Sweet Potatoes:
Orange Sweet Potatoes
The different types of sweet potatoes with orange flesh are the most common kind on the market. With varieties like Beauregard, Covington, Garnet, and Jewel dominating what’s available in grocery stores, it’s easy to believe there are only a few varieties. However, these varieties dominate shelves due to their ability to grow tasty and large amounts on commercial farms. For the intrepid gardener looking to grow varieties in the far north of the US, or in containers or poor quality soil, there is most likely a variety that will suit your needs.
While these main varieties thrive in the warm and almost tropical conditions of the American South particularly Louisiana and North Carolina, there are varieties that have been bred specifically to tolerate cooler and shorter days in the north.
These red-skinned to garnet sweet potatoes open up to reveal deep orange flesh. This particular variety is considered highly resistant to Rhizopus soft rot. It is resistant to Fusarium root rot and wilt as well as soil rot, and intermediate to resistant against root-knot nematodes. On average, it’s ready to harvest between 90-110 days after planting. Sweet and firm, the Bayou Belle is great for baking or roasting.
For growers looking for a medium-sized grower, look no further. This newer variety out of North Carolina is now one of the most popular cultivars grown both there and Louisiana. It has moist orange flesh and long uniform potatoes. This is a variety that does well in cooler climates with shorter seasons. It resists fusarium wilt, soil rot, and nematodes. Similar to the popular Beauregard sweet potato but slightly darker with an orange-red skin color. It’s usually ready to harvest after 110-120 days. Great for roasting or mashing.
Ubiquitous throughout North Carolina, Jewel sweet potatoes are another dependable and delicious crop. With a deep orange flesh and copper skin, these are probably what comes to mind when you imagine this vegetable. Able to grow in zones 4-12, this large size sweet potato can adapt to a wide range of soils including loamy, sandy, and clay.
While Jewels do take a bit longer to mature at 120-135 days, it is well worth the wait. Jewels are resistant to fusarium wilt, southern root-knot nematode, internal cork, and sweet potato beetle. They can be grown in full to partial shade. While growing, they’re best fertilized with potassium and phosphorus, but be sure to avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers. When looking for slips, try locating varieties that have been bred to be Russet Crack resistant. With copper skin and a bright orange flesh interior, this is a wonderful all-purpose potato. It is great in pies, baked, fried, or mashed.
Porto Rico is a favorite variety for gardeners wishing to grow in containers. It has copper-colored skin and a light-orange flesh color. It is a very moist food with deliciously high sugar content. It is less disease-resistant than many other types and is particularly susceptible to fusarium wilt, internal cork, and root-knot nematodes. Overall, Porto Rico is a wonderful baking variety.
Garnet sweet potatoes are one of the three most popular sweet potatoes in the US. Along with Jewel and Beauregard, they account for 90 percent of all sweet potatoes grown in the US. Grown more so in California, this medium-sized sweet potato has red skin and an orange interior and is oftentimes mislabeled as a yam. Grows in 110 days. It holds its shape when baked. This variety is a favorite among chefs. You can find this type of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in the form of fries at many popular restaurants.
Copper skin color with bright orange flesh in the interior. This is a good type for less than ideal soil as the plant maintains its shape across a variety of soil conditions. It produces well in sandy soils while still retaining its nutrition content. This variety does not taste good right after picking. It needs to be picked and stored for a while before the taste develops. For this reason, make your favorite dishes closer to Thanksgiving using this type.
These red-skinned beauties have a bright orange-red flesh interior. A favorite among growers with sandy soils, it produces well in Louisiana. This red sweet potato has a moderately good yield, however it produces less than many other varieties and takes 90-100 days to grow. You can depend on the Burgundy for a creamy texture and sweet flavor.
This fast-growing new variety is a hit among farmers. With a copper skin and a dark orange flesh color, this fast-growing plant produces large sweet potatoes that resist cracking. Requiring about 110 days to maturity, this variety also is resistant to white grub and streptomyces soil rot. Be careful to plant this in beds known to be free of root-knot nematodes as this strain has yet to develop resistance.
White Sweet Potatoes
While many growers may be more familiar with their orange cousins, there are many types of sweet potatoes that appear with tanned skin and a cream-colored interior. While slightly different in taste from their orange fleshed cousins these types still make for great baking and frying potatoes.
The Hannah sweet potato is a standard white variety with tan skin and cream-colored yellow flesh. It is most commonly grown in California and has a sweet and earthy flavor. The Hannah is fairly firm and sweet when cooked but is also fairly dry. The nutritional content of the Hannah and other similar types of sweet potatoes is less than that of its deep orange-fleshed cousins.
A prolific variety, this plant matures in just 90 days making it a great choice for people growing in short growing windows. The root grows with a tan exterior and a white color flesh. This sweet potato was developed from the orange flesh Beauregard and has much of its disease resistance.
Sumor is a novelty variety, it has a light tan tan skin and is almost a yellow sweet potato however it alternates between yellow and white flesh. It’s somewhat disease resistant and able to grow in warmer climates. It has a wonderful flavor when baked and fried.
Despite its name, this variety of sweet potato was originally developed in Louisiana. Now grown primarily in California, this reddish-purple sweet potato has a pale white flesh color and has broad disease resistance. It has a wide variety of uses in the kitchen and can be used as a more nutritious substitute to a russet potato with a better flavor too.
Purple Sweet Potatoes
Purple sweet potatoes come in two main varieties, either the Stokes purple with a purple skin and purple flesh, or the Okinawa variety that has a white skin and a purple interior. Better in nutrition content than their orange cousins these creamy spuds are smaller overall but still great for baking and mashing.
The Stokes purple sweet potato as the name suggests has purple skin and a dark purple flesh color. It’s color comes from anthocyanins also found in fruits like blueberries making it very high in nutrition content. It takes longer to bake than most other varieties and has less sugar, although many home chefs say they prefer this. It is also denser with a dryer texture. This is a newer variety that has a very earthy and pleasant taste and has recently been developed to be disease resistant.
Okinawa is a Japanese purple sweet potato with white skin color and a dark purple flesh. It has been part of the diet of Okinawans for centuries. Okinawa is one of the regions of the world that eats a blue zone diet, a diet that helps a substantial number of the population reach 100 years of age. This sweet potato has 150% more antioxidants from anthocyanins than blueberries.
Similar to the Stokes sweet potato, this small and long variety has a very deep purple flesh and is packed full of antioxidants. This variety is denser and less sweet than more common orange varieties but has a much higher nutritional content.
Ornamental Sweet Potatoes
Ornamental sweet potato vines have long been grown for their beauty. While they grow from actual sweet potatoes, these varieties certainly are not food. While they won’t kill you, their taste may just turn you off of actual sweet potatoes for life!
These vines have been bred for their beautiful leaf shapes and colors. Some vines are prolific and meant to cover great areas as a ground cover. Others are small and compact, great for growing in small areas or in containers. Ornamental sweet potatoes can come in green, purple, red or bronze colored leaves.
A fast-growing deep purple cultivar with a maple shaped leaf, this vine will grow well in warm weather. Unlike many other ornamental vines, this vine will flower, producing a light violet trumpet shaped flower.
Margarita Sweet Potato
This fast-growing light green vine is a great way to quickly cover walls or open areas. If grown in the shade, the leaf will turn a deeper green color.
Sweet Caroline ‘Bewitched with Envy’
This bright lite green vine with spade-shaped leaves is a heat-tolerant variety that performs well both in full sun and partial shade. A fast grower, be sure to keep it from smothering small slow-growing plants nearby. It may need to be trimmed back occasionally to control growth.
This multicolored purple-silver vine is a true showstopper. It grows up to four feet across and produces an array of maple shaped leaves in different shades of purple.
With wonderful maple shaped leaves looking like it’s right out of New England, this is a great addition to an ornamental garden or small balcony or patio. It is very easy to care for needing less water than other varieties and does well in both full and partial shade. Given its mounding instead of trailing tendencies, it would do well in hanging baskets.
About the writer, Elizabeth Cramer:
Elizabeth Cramer is a chef, plant lover, and potter. She loves teaching others how to cook and grow their own food. A California native who spent her childhood within earshot of the San Diego Zoo’s orangutans, she now lives by the beach where she battles powdery mildew and farmers’ tans.
Her love of food and where it comes from stems from her time spent living in Spain as an adolescent where she lived downwind from an olive oil factory, biked to school among olive and orange groves, and ate fresh local food. Right out of college she joined community gardens and really began to really fall in love with watching plants grow. A plant obsessive, she’s recently begun canning in an effort to meet her goal of living 100% off of her own land.
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