Sweet Potato History-Did You Know?

— Written By Carl Cantaluppi and last updated by

* Central Americans were raising sweet potatoes when Christopher Columbus first landed on their shores in 1492. He liked the vegetable so much that on his fourth voyage, he took some home to grow in Europe.

* Explorer Fernando De Soto in the 1500s lost “provisions” that became North America’s first mustangs and wild hogs. But, he became the first European to find Indian-grown sweet potatoes on the continent.

 * In one of history’s mysteries, Polynesians in the South Pacific were growing sweet potatoes as early as 1200 A.D. In fact, the native South American vegetable was the Maoris’ principle food when Captain Cook first reached New Zealand in 1769.

 * Tradition holds that Spanish explorers began the introductions that took South America’s native sweet potato and white (Irish) potato to the rest of the world — perhaps helped along in the Far East by Portuguese voyagers in the Philippines and East Indies.

* In The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950), Thor Heyerdahl proposed that Peruvian Indians took sweet potatoes as they migrated across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, long before Europeans set foot in South America. Heyerdahl had successfully tested the idea in 1947 by sailing the east-west route with five men on a balsa log raft (the Kon-Tiki), designed from early Spanish drawings and built with indigenous materials.

* U.S. historians say easy-to-grow, highly nutritious sweet potatoes were a major factor in keeping hunger from the door through such tough times as the early European colonies, Revolutionary War, Civil War and Great Depression.

* Before George Washington became a general and the first U.S. President, he was a sweet potato farmer.

 * In the United States, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes have been mistakenly called yams for so long that both names are becoming accepted usage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture still requires, however, that food labels with the term “yam” be accompanied by the words “sweet potato.”

* True yams are starchy, underground tubers that historical artifacts indicate were a food crop in Africa at least 50,000 years ago. Unlike sweet potatoes, yams have a rough, scaly skin, and they aren’t sweet. Grown in tropical zones, yams also can reach up to 6 feet long and weigh more than 150 pounds.

* One theory holds that slaves in U.S. Colonial times introduced the African word for yam — “nyami” — for the sweet potatoes they found growing in the Americas.

* The sweet potato is no potato. The plant is a member of the morning glory family, and it produces bulging food-storage roots that are edible. In contrast, the white (Irish) potato plant is a nightshade family member that produces swollen underground stems called tubers.

 * Although born a slave, George Washington Carver revolutionized Southern agriculture. He promoted rotating soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops that also could provide low-cost nutrition and new products for poor farmers. Best known for the hundreds of uses he found for peanuts, Carver also developed 118 different products made from sweet potatoes, including flour, ink, mucilage for postal stamps, synthetic rubber, tapioca, vinegar and 500 shades of textile dye.

 * China is today’s acknowledged leader in world sweet potato production. North Carolina is No. 1 in U.S. production. Sweet potatoes now tend to dominate in warm zones, while white potatoes dominate in cool areas (e.g., Ireland).

* Worldwide, the flesh of most sweet potato varieties is white or near-white. But, the flesh of the famous Okinawa (very) sweet potato – which also is a popular staple in Hawaii – is purple.

* If handled gently, unwashed sweet potatoes can store well for weeks or even months in a dry, cool (55-60 F) location.

* Fresh sweet potatoes stored in a modern refrigerator develop an off-taste and a hard core in the center.

* Sweet potatoes are only washed right before cooking because moisture promotes spoilage.