Sweet Potato, A Historic American
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) originated in the tropical regions of the Americas and were domesticated there a long time ago. They spread very early throughout the regions, including the Caribbean. Sweet potatoes were also widely cultivated as food centuries before European explorations in Polynesia.
In the islands off the coast of Yucatan and Honduras the sweet potato was called axi and batatas or betatas by the natives. In 1514, Peter Martyr (photo on left) named nine varieties that grew in Honduras. Sweet potatoes were taken to Spain about 1500 and several kinds were cultivated there by the middle of the 16th century, including red, purple, and pale or "white" varieties.
Cultivation of sweet potatoes was tried unsuccessfully in Belgium in 1576. John Gerarde of London, claimed that in 1597 he grew the plant in England (probably without much success) and that it was known in India, Barbary, and other hot regions.
Early Spanish explorers are believed to have taken the sweet potato to the Philippines and East Indies, from which it was soon carried to India, China, and Malaya by Portuguese voyagers. The original introductions from America into the Pacific and Far East were so unobtrusive that the origin of the plant was long overlooked, many believing it native to southern and southeastern Asia.
Especially Important in Tropical Areas
The sweet potato has become far more important in subtropical and tropical areas than has the Irish potato because it thrives in a hot, moist climate, while the latter requires a cool climate. Thus it has never become popular in Europe and it still is little known even in the warmer Mediterranean areas. Here on the left is a display of South Pacific sweet potatoes along with their beautiful leaves. It is important in the warm Pacific islands, the East Indies, India, China, and is now the third most important food crop in Japan.
In fact, the Japanese people eat sweet potatoes not only as a side dish, but as main dishes, snacks (they love eating charcoal grilled whole sweet potatoes out-of-hand) and as desserts. Sweet potato pies and even ice cream are very popular in Japan, as their varieties tend to be sweeter than in the United States. Apparently the sweet potato was introduced to Kyushu, Japan from China sometime around 1700, by way of the Ryukyu Islands. In southern Kyushu today it is commonly called kara-imo, meaning Chinese potato; but in most of the other parts of Japan it is called satsuma-imo (Japanese potato). The relatively recent introduction of the sweet potato into Japan seems in itself a good argument against its Chinese or other Asiatic origin.
Sweet potatoes were cultivated in Virginia in 1648, possibly earlier, and are said to have been taken into New England in 1764. They were grown by the Indians of our South in the 18th century, but we do not know how much earlier.
Today, North Carolina is the leading U.S. state in sweet potato production. Currently, North Carolina provides 40% of the annual U.S. production of sweet potatoes.
In the past 25 years, plant breeders in Australia and in the warmer parts of the Soviet Union have taken great interest in its food-producing possibilities and have sought to develop its culture on a large scale.
In the South today they are generally preferred over Irish potatoes as a staple food; in the North the reverse is true.