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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 04:17 pm

Here’s what’s sweet about sweet potatoes

This weekend the anticipation became unbearable. I finally had to dig a hill of sweet potatoes in our garden. They looked beautiful and tasted great. Soon, we will dig all 50 plants and surely have an abundance for this winter.

Sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is a versatile food crop. Despite its name, it is not related to the Irish potato. The sweet potato is a true root, while an Irish potato is a tuber (an underground stem).

Sweet potatoes, native to Central and South America, have been grown in the United States for hundreds of years. In 2008, 1.8 billion pounds of sweet potatoes were sold in the United States. North Carolina is the top-producing sweet potato state, growing 47,000 acres. No surprise that the sweet potato is the official vegetable of North Carolina. Southern states grow most of the sweet potatoes produced in the United States. Besides North Carolina, other major growers include Mississippi, Louisiana, California, Alabama and Arkansas.

Not only are sweet potatoes tasty, but they are good for you. One cup of sweet potatoes provides more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin E and 65 percent RDA of vitamin C. They also are a good source of beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamin B6, iron, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber. They are low in sodium, cholesterol-free and virtually fat free. Sweet potatoes are more nutritious if cooked with the skin on. One cup of cooked sweet potato has only 180 calories. Remember, it is what you add to a sweet potato that increases the calories and fat.

Sweet potatoes can be eaten steamed, boiled, baked, fried, as a side dish or as a dessert. There are even sweet potato chips, fries, pancakes, cookies, fruit juice, ice cream and pet treats. For meal planning, three medium sweet potatoes equal about one pound, which equals about 1 cups pureed.

Sweet potatoes need a long growing season, therefore, Illinois growing conditions are not suited for growing them commercially, but we can produce enough for home use. In Illinois, sweet potato plants are planted in late May after the soil has warmed up, and harvested at the time of the first frost in the fall. They need a full-sun garden location with moderate rainfall. They grow best in a fertile, sandy loam, well-drained soil, with a pH of 5.6 to 6.5. At higher pH levels, diseases are more common. Give them plenty of room as the vigorous vines can cover three to four feet. Sweet potatoes prefer one inch of water per week; avoid overwatering as they can be damaged by too much water.

Select firm, well-shaped, smooth-skin potatoes. Avoid sweet potatoes with soft spots, bruises or any decay. The color of the skin and flesh can range from white, light yellow, orange to red, depending on the cultivar. If you plan to store sweet potatoes, be sure to cure them. Store-bought sweet potatoes have already been cured. At farmers’ markets, ask the vendor if they have cured the potatoes. To cure, place potatoes in a warm room, 85 degrees Faherenheit and 85 percent humidity (if possible) for 10 to 14 days. Then store sweet potatoes in a cool, dry place at 55 to 65 degrees. Roots that are carefully handled, properly cured, and damage-free can store for at least six months.

Sweet potatoes should not be reserved only for Thanksgiving dinner — they are a nutritious vegetable that can be enjoyed year round. For more interesting facts and great recipes, visit the North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission Web site at

Contact Jennifer Fishburn at