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University of Illinois Extension

Versatile sweet potato not just for the Thanksgiving Day table

October 14, 2013

URBANA, Ill. - An easy-to-grow garden vegetable, sweet potatoes, will soon be ready to be harvested from the garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is a very versatile food crop," said Jennifer Fishburn. "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 2010, 2.3 billion pounds of sweet potatoes were grown in the United States. North Carolina is the top-producing sweet potato state, growing 55,000 acres. "No surprise that the sweet potato is the official vegetable of North Carolina," Fishburn said.

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," Fishburn said.

One cup of sweet potatoes provides more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A (beta carotene). They are also a good source of vitamin C, maganese and dietary fiber. Sweet potatoes 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," she said.

For meal planning, Fishburn said three medium sweet potatoes equal about 1 pound which equals about 1 one quarter cup pureed. "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," she added.

Sweet potatoes need a long growing season; therefore, Illinois growing conditions are not suited for growing them commercially, but enough can be produced 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," Fishburn said. "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 3 to 4 feet. Sweet potatoes prefer 1 inch of water per week, but avoid overwatering as they can be damaged by too much water."

When selecting sweet potatoes Fishburn said to look for potatoes that are firm, well shaped, and smooth skinned. "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," she added.

"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," she said.

To cure, place potatoes in a warm room, at 85 degrees Fahrenheit 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 Fahrenheit. Roots that are carefully handled, properly cured, and damage free can be stored for at least six months, she said.

"Sweet potatoes should not be reserved only for Thanksgiving dinner. They are a nutritious vegetable that can be enjoyed year round," Fishburn said.

For more facts and great recipes, visit the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission website at http://www.ncsweetpotatoes.com/.

Source: Jennifer Fishburn, Extension Educator, Horticulture, fishburn@illinois.edu

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