Submitted by Ray Eckhart
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are warm-season plants in the morning glory family (Convulvulaceae). The part we eat is the fleshy storage root of the plant, which is a little different than the regular Irish, or white, potato (Solanum tuberosum), a plant in the family Solanaceae. In that case, the part we eat is a fleshy underground stem of the plant, called a tuber.
Although sweet potato roots continue to grow until frost kills the vines, an extremely hard frost can cause damage to the ones near the surface. Chilling injury also results when soil temperatures drop to 50°F or lower, and this can result in internal decay in storage. The greatest danger from delayed digging is the risk of cold, wet soil encouraging decay. So the best time to dig is around the time of first frost in your area, or shortly thereafter. The vines can be clipped approximately 5 days before digging to improve skin-set or reduce the incidence of skinning the roots during harvest. To avoid exceptionally large sweet potatoes, a few hills should be dug in advance of the anticipated harvest date to determine the size of the sweet potato roots.
You can cook newly dug sweet potatoes right away, but their flavor, color and storage quality is greatly improved by curing at warm temperatures immediately after harvest. It is during the curing process that starch is converted to sugar.
Cure sweet potatoes by holding them for about 10 days at 80-85°F and high relative humidity (85-90 percent). Commercial producers have temperature and humidity controlled housing to guarantee good results, but for the home grower, they can be cured near a furnace or heat source to provide the necessary warmth. If the temperature near your furnace is between 65-75°F, the curing period should last 2-3 weeks. To maintain the required high humidity (85-90 percent relative humidity), stack storage crates or boxes and cover them with paper or heavy cloth.
Once the sweet potatoes are cured, move them to a dark location where a temperature of about 55-60°F can be maintained, like an unheated basement, or root cellar. Sweet potatoes are subject to chilling injury, so don’t refrigerate them. Outdoor pits are not recommended for storage because the dampness encourages decay. Good results can be obtained by wrapping cured sweet potatoes in newspaper and storing them in a cool closet. Sweet potatoes can also be stored in sand.
Ornamental Sweet Potatoes
Have you ever wondered what, if any, is the difference between the ornamental sweet potato vines grown as a season-long ground cover, or, as “spillers” in container arrangements, and the vegetable we grow as food? The answer is – not much. They are just different cultivars of the same plant species, Ipomoea batatas. The ones we grow for food are selected and bred to produce large, uniform, good tasting roots, high in nutrients for eating, whereas the ones we grow ornamentally are selected for the striking shapes and colors of their leaves. Plant breeders introduce new variations every year. If you dig up the earth around your ornamental vines, you’ll find the same fleshy roots (different colors, perhaps) as the familiar ones we grow, or buy, for food. So, can you eat them? Well, technically, yes – but there’s no guarantee how they’ll taste. Most ornamental varieties are pretty bland. However, if you dig, cure, and store them as above, it’s possible they can stay viable until spring, when you can try to continue their growth for another season.
Ray Eckhart is a former Penn State Extension Educator and avid home vegetable grower, with a weakness, bordering on obsession, for home grown tomatoes.