San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sweet Potatoes: Great Spinach Substitutes

LONG beforeColumbus discoveredthe Americas,indigenous tribes ofCentral and SouthAmerica weregrowing sweetpotatoes in a varietyof colors andshapes.Known ascamote in Spanish,the sweet potato(Ipomoea batatas)was later distributed around the world byearly explorers, and today it’s grown as amajor food crop in the South Pacific,Japan, China, New Zealand, India, Egypt,Southern Europe and the United States.Home gardeners in the tropics can takeadvantage of this wonder plant to provide abountiful supply of nutritious food for thefamily. These tubers are a good source ofcarbohydrates, vitamin A, B1, B2, C, calcium,phosphorus and iron. The leafy tops ofthe plants can also be prepared as a spinachdish, which is delicious and highly nutritious.SWEET potatoes belong to the morningglory family, Convolvulaceae, withlong trailing vines and pale lavender,morning-glory type flowers, which seldommake seeds. Instead, the plant has evolvedto reproduce vegetative offshoots.To grow camotes in your home garden,you need stem cuttings from mature plantsto get them started. If you can’t find stemcuttings from any of your neighbors, don’tworry.Here’s how it’s done: the next time youare shopping in the supermarket or localmarket, select some good-looking sweetpotatoes. You can often find the purple skinnedvariety with a sweet, yellow interior,or the reddish- skinned variety, which isorange on the inside and tastes more like ayam.At home, take a medium-size tuber andplant it in an 8-inch pot with regular soil.Plant it so half the tuber with the end of thestem is sticking straight up out of the soil.You can also place three toothpicks aroundthe middle of the tuber and suspend it in aglass jar filled with water. Place it in asunny window and watch it sprout andgrow new shoots.I REMEMBER my grandmotherdoing this with sweet potatoes to createdecorative foliage plants. After a month orso, you will be able to trim the leafy stemsfor planting. These stem cuttings shouldbe at least 12 inches long and can be planteddirectly in a well-dug, compostenrichedgarden bed about two inches deepand two feet apart.In about a week, the cuttings willrecover and begin to grow new leaves. Inthree to four months the new vines willcover the entire garden bed and new sweetpotatoes will be ready to harvest. You caneither dig up a few at a time or harvestthem all at once, and replant the stemsagain to keep a continual supply ofcamotes going in the garden.Also remember that the leaves from thestem cuttings are an excellent spinach substitute.This is particularly good news forgardeners who live in the warmer regionsof the country where spinach doesn’t growwell. Harvested roots can be sun dried fora day and stored in a dry, shady area.CAMOTES are wonderful baked andlend themselves to many creative dishes,such as sweet potato vegetable pies withgarlic and onions or pureed like mashedpotatoes. The list of recipes goes on andon. I hope you’ll try these nutritious,native spuds in your home garden thisyear. Until next time – happy gardeningin Costa Rica.For more info on tropical home gardeningbe sure to see our Web site or e-mail We havebooks, seeds and classes to offer you.

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