How Sweet They Are

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

There are some people who, while they appear sensible, are not fans of the sweet potato. I, on the other hand, am happy eating them year-round. Thanksgiving gives me cover so I can tuck into my favorite dish.

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is not actually a potato or related to our common potato (Solanum tuberosum), but rather a member of the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.  This family is distinguished by its long, funnel-shaped flowers, including about 1,600 species of plants.

You can display your horticultural acumen at the dining table by disabusing people of the other incorrect notion — sweet potatoes are not yams. They are entirely their own wonderful, sweet self.

Let’s first pause for a moment with its botanical name. The genus, Ipomoea, derives from Greek ipos or worm, alluding to its wrapped or twining habit. Many plants in this genus either climb upwards or twist along the ground. 

Next is its species name. Christopher Columbus’s crew are thought to be the first Europeans to experience sweet potatoes; they merged the Spanish and indigenous names to produce “batatas,” a label which has remained as its species name.

A tropical native, Ipomoea batatas grows happily in the eastern part of our state. In fact, it’s likely the sweet potatoes on your holiday dinner table came from North Carolina.

Generating more than half of the national supply, our state is the number-one producer of sweet potatoes in the country. Last year the crop was worth about $350 million, a small fraction of North Carolina’s $92 billion agriculture sector.

Drive to our coast along I-40 and you will likely pass through some of the 94,000 acres devoted to sweet potatoes. Sampson County, with a population around 64,000 people, led the way last year, producing nearly three million pounds; that’s about 47 pounds of sweet potatoes for each resident of that county.

Part of its appeal is the sweet potatoes’ adaptability. Technology, developed at NC State University, has enabled North Carolina’s sweet potatoes to be processed into several different forms and shipped around the world. Thanks to these innovations you can find NC sweet potatoes in products as diverse as baby food and vodka. 

While it’s too late to raise a crop of your own sweet potatoes for this Thanksgiving, a little planning now will help materialize your own sweet dreams next year.

Sweet potatoes are very temperature sensitive and will not tolerate frost. Keep an eye on night-time temperatures and wait until the soil has warmed to 70 degrees. A visit to https://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/average-first-and-last-frost-dates/ will help you identify the average first and last frost dates for your county.

While most cultivars need more than 100 days to mature, Beauregard and Georgia Jet are ready in about 80 days and you can jumpstart your crop by purchasing transplants.

Plant your transplants in mounds leaving 18” to 36” of space between them. True to the name of their genus, the above-ground vines will tumble and tangle, so give them the space they need.

While they have a reputation for drought resistance, sweet potatoes are actually big, thirsty plants. Plan to supplement weekly rainfall by providing as much as three gallons of water per plant during the growing season.

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of a class of fourth graders in Wilson County, in 1995 the General Assembly declared the sweet potato our state’s official vegetable. 

More appealing after cooking, sweet potatoes have character. Photo by Lise Jenkins.

Official status aside, I like my sweet potatoes baked with a little bit butter, salt and dill. Planting only one mound of Beauregard this year, my husband and I have a goodly supply to enjoy over the coming months. How sweet that is.


Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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