Monday, November 12, 2012

Windowsill Crop: Sweet Potato Vine

Most everyone has grown sweet potato vines on their windowsill, right?  You put three toothpicks in the sides of the potato, suspend it in a jar and watch it leaf out and trail around the window...nothing to it.

In my case, you watch it start to sprout on the counter and then drop it into a plastic tumbler half full of abandoned drinking water on your way out of the house one day.  That's the lazy way, but it worked fine!  Look at all those roots!  You can tell exactly where the water line was.

What I never knew is that the beautiful heart-shaped leaves of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) are EDIBLE!  Did you know that?  All these years, I've admired the pretty leaves of this fast-growing houseplant, but had no idea I could be putting them in salads, chopping and sauteeing them, eating them any way you would eat spinach.

A YouTube video clued me in.  (Yes, I was looking at sweet potato videos!)  The thumbnail of one caught my eye because the sweet potato had been cut into pieces to root, instead of used whole, which is how I'd always seen them started as houseplants in the past.  Hmm, smart garden trick to get more plants than anyone could possibly need from just one potato!  Anyway, in the caption it said, "a yummy salad."

Wait, salad?

I poked around YouTube and flipped through my home library and discovered that there are lots of cultures where sweet potato leaves are as much a part of the cuisine as the tuber.  The tender young greens are everyday fare in Asia, Africa, and parts of Oceania.

What I'm trying to understand is why in North Carolina, where sweet potatoes have been grown since before the Europeans arrived, where North Carolina farmers today grow billions of pounds of sweet potatoes every year, where towns have sweet potato festivals and, in fact,  sweet potato has been named our state vegetable, we don't eat the greens?  I have never in a lifetime of living here, ever seen or heard of anyone eating the greens!

Southerners love the greens of turnip, mustard, beet, collards...why not sweet potato?  Seems like a waste of a crop, doesn't it?  Maybe we feed them to livestock?  Could it be they are tilled back in as green manure after the sweet potatoes are dug?  Maybe I'm just late to the party and everyone else knows all about this?  You're not laughing at me now, are you? :)  If you have a sweet potato, or especially a sweet potato greens story, please leave a comment below, or email me.

The plant pictured above (and left) made its way from porch to compost pile eventually, where it creeped to the periphery and grew up through the framework for a few weeks.  I looked for some sign of it this morning, but there was not a trace, so even my willingness to eat from the compost pile didn't help me track down a taste.  I'll have to start another plant.

I'll put it on the windowsill and when it looks like the one at the top of this post, I'll do a little pruning and see what I've been missing.  Anything fresh and green is welcome in the winter, right?  I can see chopping even just a couple of leaves to add an herbal flair to something.    Maybe I'll get a little more creative and try some of the delicious-sounding recipes in this article:  Specialty Crops:  Sweet Potato Greens


Something to keep in mind is that Irish russet potatoes, red potatoes, Yukon Golds, etc. (Solanum tuberosum), do NOT have edible leaves.  Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to those potatoes; they are in an entirely separate plant family.  Do not eat the greens of Solanum species!