No Thanksgiving dinner is complete without the rustic sweet potato, eaten simply as-is or whipped up into fantastic pies and casseroles. This festive delicacy is actually a warm-season crop that grows well in Arkansas and just about anywhere else, said Dr. Craig Andersen, extension horticulture specialist-vegetables, for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
They're packed with nutrients, being a good source of vitamin A, fiber and minerals. "Sweet potatoes can grow in poor soils and still make a crop, so it's no wonder it was so widespread in cultivation," he said.
The humble sweet potato is a New World crop that originated in South America, in what is now Brazil. Sweet potatoes have been cultivated for thousands of years there and were thought to have spread to Polynesia over 1,000 years ago by early visitors.
When the Spanish and Portuguese took sweet potato roots back to Europe, the plant was immediately accepted and spread around the world. "To put this into context, Irish potatoes, another New World vegetable not related to sweet potatoes, took more than 100 years to be accepted into everyday use in Europe," said Andersen.
Sweet potatoes are sometimes referred to interchangeably as "yams" in the U.S., but to a botanist, nothing could be further from the truth. "A true sweet potato is a member of the morning-glory family, while true yams belong to the genus Dioscorea and are white, starchy and dry," he said.
In the U.S., sweet potatoes are grown from California to Florida, with North Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi among the largest producers. They also grow well in Arkansas, and prefer a well-drained soil that is not too rich. Limited nitrogen fertilization produces the best-quality roots, said Andersen.
A good sweet potato will be cured, allowing it to mature and sweeten after harvest. It should be free from defects due to disease and insects. Sweet potatoes are best stored at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with air circulation that prevents humidity from building up. Choose roots that are not too large - 2.5 to 3.5 inches in diameter.