Turkey is the star of most Thanksgiving tables. But once you’ve chosen white meat or dark (or both!), side dishes are there to fill up the rest of your plate. Stuffing, corn, carrots, rolls, potatoes… they make Thanksgiving complete. One item that appears on almost every holiday table is sweet potatoes, whether in a casserole or topped with gooey melted marshmallows. But don’t call them “candied yams” – that’s an entirely different vegetable. Wow your Thanksgiving guests this year when you serve them a spoonful of sweet potato facts like these.
I Yam Not a Potato. It turns out this is a completely misnamed vegetable. It’s often called a “yam” but it’s not. It’s also not an actual potato. Yams are an African vegetable, part of the Dioscorea family. It’s thought the term “yam” began to be applied to actual sweet potatoes by African slaves long ago. Yams themselves are rarely found in the U.S., aside from specialty food stores. They usually have white flesh, as opposed to the bright orange we recognize in sweet potatoes.
The USDA now requires all sweet potatoes to be labeled properly. (Take a close look at the front of a can of Bruce’s Yams, and you’ll see “sweet potatoes” in smaller print underneath.) But this is a little confusing too, because this tuber isn’t actually a potato. Potatoes are part of the Solanum genus, the nightshades. Sweet potatoes are related, but part of the Ipomoea family, along with morning glories.
Tasty Tuber, Beautiful Bloom. So much for sweet potato fiction… let’s talk sweet potato facts. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is native to the tropical Americas. They were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago in Central America. This root vegetable can have flesh ranging from white to orange to purple, but in the 1930s food scientists developed the cultivars we eat today.
As a member of the morning glory family, sweet potatoes have surprisingly beautiful flowers. They’re vines, and ornamental varieties have been cultivated especially to show off bright lime green or deep purplish-black leaves. Ornamental sweet potato is excellent in hanging baskets, where they may or may not flower in the fall. Planted in the ground, they will go dormant after the first frost, but should return in the spring. A word of caution: their tuberous roots may look like sweet potatoes, but they tend to be flavorless at best.