What would Thanksgiving be like without the Sweet Potato, Ipomoea batatas? I couldn’t resist drawing one of ours before we baked it for everyone at our table to enjoy today. Drawing it made me want to know more about these funny shaped orange root veggies, so I tried to answer one big question I’ve had for a long time: Are sweet potatoes and yams the same? The answer is no. The Yam, which is in the genus Dioscorea, is an unrelated tuber native to Africa and now grown in the Caribbean and is sold in mostly specialized markets. I also found out that the Sweet Potato is not related to the standard potato, Solanum tuberosum nor is it in the nightshade family as are potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. And here is a surprise: Sweet Potatoes are actually related to the morning glory and the sweet potato vine grows easily with pretty leaves. Thinking about that, I remembered planting a sweet potato in a jar with water and toothpicks in 2nd grade and watching it develop roots and an amazing vine that seemed to grow a little every day. I wish schools had been more into drawing to learn science back then—what a fascinating record I would have.
Sweet potatoes are among the most nutritious foods you can find, and the more orange-fleshed they are the more beta-carotene they contain. They also contain a high content of Vitamins C, B5 and B6, and complex carbohydrates. Their cultivation is encouraged in countries with poverty and poor child health. Researchers have traced this wonderful food source to northwestern South America. Its domestication seems to have occurred with the development of Tropical Forest agricultural villages around 2500 BCE. The Spanish introduced it to Europe and spread it to China and Japan. The Portuguese brought it to India, Indonesia, and Africa. Sweet potatoes have been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 CE, so it is clear that they were in Polynesia long prior to Magellan’s circling of the world between 1519-1522. One linguistic clue to these connections is that Polynesian and Quechuan languages have a similar name for the plant. We were late in discovering that wonderful food: the Sweet Potato was introduced to the United States in the 18th century, and we’ve been growing and eating them ever since.
And as we know, they have the word “Sweet” right in their name. What can say it better than that? They are tasty, healthy, nutritious, and fun to cook and eat and draw. Happy Thanksgiving all!