If you’re looking for a power food, it’s really hard to beat a sweet potato. These delicious, versatile tubers come in an array of colors, shapes, and sizes, and they’re also incredibly nutritious. Yet, many gardeners seem a little nervous about giving them a go, even though they’re easy and fun to grow. Don’t let fear be your guide: let us take your hand and introduce you to the wide world of sweet potatoes.
First, a moment of botanic pedantry. Sweet potatoes, also known as Ipomoea batatas, are starchy tubers native to Central and Southern America, with a cultivation history dating back thousands of years. The name is a red herring — they’re not actually related to potatoes, which are in the nightshade family. (Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories, and have lovely flowers to prove it.)
You may sometimes hear some sweet potato cultivars (it’s estimated that there are at least 7,000 in total) referred to as “yams.” That’s incorrect: a yam is a tuber native to Africa, with a very different genetic heritage and flavor profile. “Yams” are usually Covington Sweet Potatoes, a very popular commercial cultivar. You may also be familiar with Japanese Sweet Potatoes, which have dark purple skin and white flesh, as well as O’Henry Sweet Potatoes, with light yellow skin and flesh — when you think of a “sweet potato,” you may well have an O’Henry in mind.
Depending on the cultivar, sweet potatoes can contain lots of vitamins A and C, along with fiber and antioxidants. They’re also high in potassium. In comparison with potatoes, they tend to have a lot more going on nutritionally, along with that rich, sweet flavor that’s so distinctive. No wonder people love roasting them, baking them in pies, mashing them, including them in curries, and frying them, especially at Thanksgiving.
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