Happy Sweet Potato Season....

Dear DownEast Gardener;

I planted a regular sweet potato in my yard and it has pink flowers. Is this normal? I took pictures. Debra W.

Answer:        Yes, it is normal. Sweet potatoes can be induced to flower by manipulating the daylength or by allowing the vines to climb on fences or trellis. A native to the tropical Americas, the root of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) has found a secure place in the economy and culture of North Carolina. The sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae), a relationship that is quite obvious when the viny habit of the plant and the morning glory-like flower is observed. North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than nearly any other state. Some of my northern friends refer to the sweet potato as a yam but this is wrong. Yams are a different species of plant that are typically grown in the tropics. The yam is not even in the same league with sweet potato. Yams are dry and starchy, and taste like over-cooked corn starch. A good baked sweet potato is like eating dessert for the main course. For serious sweet potato lovers, here are a few tips to make those complex-carbohydrate-filled roots better eating.

Sweet potato harvest starts in late September and continues up until frost. Special care must be taken when digging sweet potatoes to avoid damaging the tender outer skin. Broken or bruised potatoes are especially susceptible to soft rot when stored improperly. Long-term storage of sweet potatoes requires that the roots be cured. In large commercial operations, special barns are constructed which allow the temperature and humidity to be closely regulated. A temperature of 80 to 90F and a humidity of 85% are near optimum for curing. Roots remain in the curing barn until they develop a tough, leathery outer skin. Properly cured sweet potatoes have higher sugar content, store for a longer period of time, and can be shipped with minimal loss. Curing sweet potatoes will also allow the root to heal any damaged areas received during harvest.

The home gardener can do the curing of sweet potatoes easily. Sweet potatoes cure best when spread out on a newspaper in an area that allows good air circulation. Separate and spread out freshly harvested potatoes and prohibit them from touching each other. Depending on the conditions, natural curing will normally occur in two to five weeks depending on the conditions. Periodically check and remove any roots showing signs of rot. Areas that can be suitable for curing sweet potatoes include the attic, basement, or outbuildings. Once sweet potato roots have developed a tough outer skin, they can be gently transferred to an open basket and stored for winter.

Optimum storage for sweet potatoes is different from nearly any other fruit or vegetable. Sweet potatoes store best at a temperature of 55F and a relative humidity of 50 to 70%. A pantry or basement will usually provide satisfactory conditions but a bare earth root cellar is best. Roots should be disturbed as little as possible since handling increases the spread of soft rot and other storage diseases.  Do not allow your cured sweet potatoes to freeze. Check out these web publications for more information on the sweet potato, http://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheets/HGIC1322.htm and http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/plantanswers/vegetables/sweetpotato.html.

Nothing smells better than the aroma of baking sweet potatoes on a cool autumn evening. A slice of corn bread, a bowl of steamed collards, and a baked sweet potato is a healthy and delicious meal. It just makes cold weather worthwhile...

For the curriculum program and or gardening questions, write Dr. Bruce Williams, Brunswick Community College, PO Box 30, Supply, NC 29462 or email williamsb@brunswickcc.edu.