Florida Heritage Foods

Sweet Potato

Common name

Sweet Potato

Scientific Name

Ipomoea batatas

Other Common Names

Batata (Hebrew), camote (Central America and Phillipines), cumar (Quechua, Peru), patate douce (Cajun), 甘薯 (gān shǔ, Mandarin), शकरकंद (shakarkand, Hindi), શક્કરિયા Śakkariyā, Gujarati), mitatis (Ethiopia)

The sweet potato is a large, sweet-tasting root that is native to the tropical Americas and comes in a variety of colors. Domesticated in Central America more than 5,000 years ago, the root is now cultivated and consumed in tropical regions throughout the world. Sweet potatoes come in a wide variety of different colors and flavors, and it is common in pies, curries, chips and fries. It grows well in a Florida home garden where vining and bush varieties thrive in hot and humid weather.  

Historical Significance

Young man holding sweet potato and checking quality in the fields.
Young man holding sweet potato and checking quality in the fields.

Sweet potatoes were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in Central America and likely spread throughout the Caribbean and South America 2,500 years ago. There is some genetic evidence that sweet potatoes spread to Polynesia from the Andes around 1,000 years ago. Europeans encountered sweet potatoes during the earliest Spanish voyages to the Americas, and the root was introduced to Spanish colonies in tropical areas of Asia, such as the Philippines, and it quickly spread to China through trade. The Portuguese introduced the root to Japan where it became an important staple crop during times of famine. The sweet potato is among several crops from Latin America that have gained particular importance in Africa as a   staple crop, and cultivation has become so widespread it is often mistaken as indigenous to Africa. Today, the sweet potato is common in cuisines throughout most tropical regions including the southern United States. 

Cultural Significance

Sweet potatoes are consumed in a variety of ways throughout the world. They can be boiled, baked, fried, sauteed, mashed, and even fermented.  In Mexico, they are used in a variety of sweet and savory ways, including camotes enmielados (candied sweet potatoes) and the famous Camotes de Puebla (flavored sweet potato treats).  Kamote Cue, fried sweet potatoes coated in brown sugar, is a common afternoon snack in the Philippines. They add sweetness to Indian and Thai curries. In the United States, sweet potatoes have a long culinary history in Southern cuisine, particularly sweet potato pie and candied with marshmallows. Sweet potatoes are sometimes referred to as ‘yams’ in the South, yet they are not related to true yams which are indigenous to Africa. Today, sweet potatoes are becoming more mainstream in the United States as a more nutritious alternative to potato-based ‘French fries,’ and the young shoots and leaves are eaten as greens. 

African-American Farmers Ready to Plant Puerto Rican Sweet Potato Vines. Elmer Harvey Bone Collection, University Archives Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida
Sweet Potato Recipes in 1945 U.S. War Food Administration publication. Library of Congress Federal Archives.
Farmer with sweet potatoes in the back of his truck. 1981 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
A Louisiana farmer prepares sweet potatoes (1938). Farm Security Administration. Library of Congress.
Southern farm workers gathering sweet potatoes (1939) U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress
A farmer stores sweet potatoes in a barn for winter in Mississippi (1940) U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress.

Cooking With Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and carbohydrates.

Growing Tips

Plant March through June via slips (transplants); harvest approximately 120-140 days later.  Plants are frost sensitive, and are considered a warm-weather vegetable. Sweet potatoes should be grown in the home garden so they have enough space for vining, though it is possible to grow a more bush-like variety in a container (such as “Vardaman” or “Porto Rico”).  “Centennial” and “Beauregard” are two, vining varieties that do well in Florida.   Sweet potatoes prefer a more basic soil pH (5.6 – 6.5) and it should be properly fertilized before planting; additional fertilizer applied to the sides of rows may be necessary.  Sweet potatoes are cured before eating, and the young leaves may also be eaten like greens 

To plan a Florida heritage garden, download the ‘Planning a Florida Heritage Garden (PDF).’

sweet potato



This page produced by Val Leitner, Sarah Cervone, Bhakti Gibson, and Gabriel Frank