The sweet potato is a vining plant with sweet, starchy tubers that are a staple in many culinary traditions around the world. Its genus, Ipomoea, also contains the common and often invasive morning glory flower. The edible tuberous root of the sweet potato plant has a smooth skin and a starchy flesh. Both the skin and flesh range in color between yellow, pink, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Contrary to its name, the sweet potato is only distantly related to the potato, and while it is often confused for a yam, it belongs to a different family altogether.
The sweet potato most likely originated in the Andes of South America. Remnants of sweet potatoes have been found in Peru dating back to 8000 BC. Recent DNA analysis shows that the sweet potato was introduced to Polynesia nearly 400 years before European explorers came to the Americas. Researchers theorize that the Polynesians traveled the 6,000 miles to South America by boat and brought the sweet potato with them on their return. Shortly after, the plant was introduced to Hawaii and New Zealand, and later to Asia and Europe.
Sweet potato plants grow well in a variety of conditions, but prefer well-drained soil, plenty of sunshine and warm nights. Sweet potatoes are started from “slips” that grow out of the tubers while being stored. In northern Arizona, these are planted in mid May to early June. The tuberous roots are ready to be harvested anywhere from three to five months later. Since the plants do not tolerate frosts, most sweet potatoes are harvested in early fall or covered to protect them from frost damage.
Sweet potatoes store well, making them an excellent choice for winter dishes. Sweet potatoes are packed with calcium, potassium and vitamin C. Varieties with darker orange flesh are loaded with beta-carotene. Some recipes to try? Black bean and sweet potato tacos or burgers, sweet potato pie and homemade sweet potato fries.