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What's so Sweet about Sweet Potatoes?

Educator Resources

There are multiple reasons the sweet potato gets so much attention.  Besides being widely consumed during the Thanksgiving holiday, the sweet potato ranks number one on the 10 Best Foods list published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  George Washington, back in the 1700’s, was thought to have grown sweet potatoes on his farm in Virginia.  Sweet potatoes are jammed-packed full of nutrition, widely available at a decent price, easy to store, and you can even purchase a National Sweet Potato Awareness Month t-shirt on popular internet shopping sites.  Remaining popular for hundreds of years, the sweet potato continues to be a Fall favorite for many!

Sweet potatoes are yams, right?

Yams are often mistaken as sweet potatoes because they look and taste similar, however, the two are not botanically related.  Sweet potatoes (lpomoea batatas) are roots from a herbaceous perennial vine.  Yams (dioscorea alata) are tubers (or bulbs) of a tropical vine.  Sweet potatoes are packed full of vitamin A (even more than carrots), while yams contain very little vitamin A.  Sweet potatoes are grown in the United States and around the world, but yams are not grown in the United States and likely originated from West Africa.  Sweet potatoes have soft delicate skin while a yam has rough thick skin. 

What are the varieties of sweet potatoes?

There are hundreds of varieties and too many to list here, but they can be divided into five (5) basic types:

  • Orange skin with orange flesh
  • Red skin with orange flesh
  • Yellow skin with white flesh
  • Purple skin with white flesh
  • Purple skin with purple flesh

Depending on your preferences for texture and flavor and your recipe, you may prefer one variety over the other. 

Colors of sweet potatoes

What is the nutritional value of a sweet potato?

Sweet potato nutrition label

What are the health benefits of a sweet potato?

  • Immune system support – The beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body
  • Highly nutritious – Great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals
  • Promote gut health – High in fiber and antioxidants
  • May have cancer fighting properties - Antioxidants
  • Support healthy vision – Beta-carotene

How are sweet potatoes planted?

Sweet potatoes are planted as “slips”, after the last spring frost.  Slips are shoots that grow from a mature sweet potato.  Many people can order slips through an online supply store and some start their own at home.  Sweet potato plants need three to four months of warm temperatures in order to produce well.  They successfully grow in zones 3-11.  To learn more about planting zones, read our blog “Get in the Zone for National Garden Month”.  The planting location should be well-drained soil with plenty of sun.  They will also need plenty of room for the vines to spread and run.  Slips should be planted 12 to 18 inches apart.

Sweet potato slips

How are sweet potatoes harvested?

Harvest can begin once the sweet potatoes are large enough for a meal and the leaves of the plant have begun to turn yellow.  This is usually 3 to 4 months after planting.  Most varieties take around 100 days to reach maturity.  Roots of the plant will spread 4 to 6 inches deep in the soil, so you will need a shovel or spade fork to dig them up.  Use the shovel or spade fork to loosen the soil around the plant (18 inch diameter, as to not injure the mature roots).  Gently grab the base of the plant and begin to pull up and out of the ground.  You may need to use your hands to dig up the sweet potatoes. Do not wash them, just gently brush off the dirt.  They must be cured:  Store in a warm location at high humidity for 10 to 14 days.  While they are curing, make sure they are not crowded or touching one another.  After 10 to 14 days, throw out any bruised or rotting potatoes.  It is best to store them at a temperature between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  If stored properly, they can last for up to six months.

Sweet potatoes in field

Where are sweet potatoes grown in the United States?

Sweet potatoes can be grown in any state, but the states that produce the most are North Carolina, Louisiana, California, Mississippi and Florida.  The total acreage harvested in the United States according to the 2017 Ag Census was 172,983 acres.  As shown in the chart below, North Carolina has the most growth in regards to acres harvested.  The other high producing states are slowing beginning to increase their production.

Sweet potato harvest chart

No wonder sweet potatoes get a whole month of awareness!  They truly are an amazing root vegetable!


The United States Sweet Potato Council, Inc.

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service

Picture credits: 

The US Sweet Potato Council – 4 color variety photo – Sweet potato slips

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