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One potato, two potato, sweet potato, more

June 27, 2014
By JOYCE COMINGORE ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

No, I'm not trying to find out who is it. We are trying to plant sweet potatoes in Trafalgar Middle School's garden. We know we cannot use store bought potatoes to get the eye sprouts to plant. They have been treated with "no sprout" chemicals or, who knows where they have been pesticide and disease wise.

I have a friend that gave us one of her sprouts; she has a yard full of them from her planting. You can buy starts from your local feed stores, but we got our slips from Roy Beckford, county agent at the Extension. He gave us cuttings from vines that have been growing, a new trick for me.

We promptly cut more shoots from our vine Judith had planted. They are planted with their leaves above ground, along the fences where we dug out our tomatoes and we also put some in the empty side of the strawberry hill, according to the directions from Roy. They grow best in hills of loose soil, and are easier to retrieve. (They produce underground, needing to be dug up)

I have another problem - in trying to tell my story, do I put a letter "e" on the end of two potato because it's plural? In l992, Vice President Dan Quayle got a lot of flak for correcting a spelling bee contestant, saying the contestant needed to put an "e" on the end of his word, potato - Wrong, (not unless it is plural). So, is two potato plural or just a counting lesson?

Ipomoea batatas, sweet potatoes, belong to the Convolvulaceae family, and are only distantly related to potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), so sweet potatoes don't belong to the nightshade family. Their genus is Ipomoea, and they are related to the morning glory - their blooms resemble morning glories. The ornamental Ipomoea batatas, Blackie (a dark reddish purple black), Margarita (a lime green), Tricolor (says it all - red, green and white), and the newly developed in 2002, Sweet Caroline varieties (bronze, green, purple or red small pointy leaves that don't bloom unless severely stressed), are all ornamental with vines that contribute their popularity to hanging in baskets or ground cover. Producing a distasteful tuber with highly poisonous seeds, ornamental is their thing.

The sweet tasting root vegetable, Ipomoea batatas, has every part edible. The tender young leaves and shoots are eaten as greens (another tasting like spinach plant). They are one of the oldest known vegetables to man. It's been around a long time, and well traveled. In 1492, Columbus brought this "New World" vegetable to us from St. Thomas Island, then on to Europe, and it has traveled beyond.

Sweet potatoes like to grow when it is hot. Its reputation came from being able to grow in poor soils and give us a nourishing meal. It was popular until about 1920 when people associated it with hard times and as soon as they became affluent, they changed their diet. Now, because it is such a nutritious vegetable, it is regaining popularity.

Tubers start growing at 50 to 60 days after planting and as such, they don't like being waterlogged. Historically, they have been a good poor soil producer, with little water or fertilizer, but like all plants, better conditions lead to bigger crops. They are so willing to grow they will root if their vines fall to the ground.

When planting, place plants 12 to 18 inches apart, with 3 feet between rows to accommodate the running vines.

In our southern weather, they need to be cured after digging up. Sweet potatoes are not sweet when first dug. They need a resting period to "cure." Shake off the soil, but don't wash it. Spread them on a well-ventilated place, out of the rain, for 10 days. As they cure, all scratches will heal and the flesh inside becomes sweeter and more nutritious. Uncured potatoes do not bake well.

Keep them cool and dry, not refrigerated. This is where the old time "root cellars" were so popular. They were caves dug into a hill, with a sliding door that lifted. I just remember seeing them and being fascinated with them as a child. Then, came dark windowless rooms in the basement. Potatoes keep up to 6 months in storerooms. You can wrap them in newspaper to store, just don't wrap in aluminum foil to bake, they steam and don't caramelize.

Next we have the sweet potato/yam controversy. When working in the produce section of a local grocery store, I could say, "all tubers are sweet potatoes, but not all sweet potatoes are yams." They are really two entirely different vegetables. True yams are from the perennial tropical vine, Dioscorea batata. With sweeter tubers, this vine gets over seven feet long. Yam tubers have a brown or black skin that looks like tree bark. Depending on the variety, their flesh is beige, purple or red, having a higher sugar and moisture content (also sold as boniato).

In the mid 20th century, when orange-fleshed sweet potatoes were introduced here, they were labeled yams to differentiate them from the whitish flesh sweet potatoes we had been eating - a marketing ploy. Darker skinned sweet potatoes are still sweet potatoes, not yams. To prevent confusion, the U.S, Department of Agriculture then required sweet potatoes sold as yams also be labeled as sweet potatoes.

Much of my research done has been courtesy of the North Carolina University. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina. In 2007, North Carolina lead in sweet potato production, with 38.5 percent of the U.S total produced there.

Seeds are used for breeding purposes only, it's easier to plant potato eyes or snipped shoots of the vines. You know what you will be growing, not a cross-bred.

I've learned something new with this article, thanks to Roy. Still, thank a tree. See you at the Taste of Lee Saturday.

Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener, hibiscus enthusiast and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.



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