Where Do Sweet Potatoes Come From?

The mystery of the sweet potato origins continues with each hemisphere arguing that this delicious food crop belongs to them.

Botanical Names: Ipomoea batatas

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are technically not potatoes at all. Their closest relatives are of the Morning Glory (Ipomoea tricolor) family, which becomes obvious when comparing the leaves and flowers of these family members. They are perennial, but cultivated as annuals.

It is thought that edible sweet potatoes were first cultivated in Peru, but there are strong arguments from both the eastern and western hemisphere for the origins of this food crop. To this day, it is still a mystery that has not been unraveled.

Some believe that the Polynesians that visited South America brought them on their travels. Research shows that they were cultivated in Polynesia before 1250 and reached New Zealand by the fourteenth century, then grown in Virginia by 1648. Once Christopher Columbus made it to the “New World” they were an already established food source.

However, in the “Sweet Potato Current for Profit” by R.H. Price, it gives two different scenarios, one of which that Columbus brings it back from the New World to England and presents it to the Queen. The second is that sweet potatoes were mentioned in the “Chinese Encyclopedia of Agriculture” which dates back to the second or third century and mentions specific varieties. The mystery will most likely never be solved. 

Our first president, George Washington, grew sweet potatoes on his farm in Virginia. Over 100differnt products from sweet potatoes were create by George Washington Carver, including an alternative to corn syrup. During World War I, sweet potato flour was used in baked goods as wheat flour was not available. 

Although, we know that sweet potatoes predate the "Irish" or "white" potato (Solanumtuberosum) by nearly half a century, they are not related to this common looking vegetable. Actually, sweet potato were the common potato in the 3rd century and used more frequently like white potatoes. The Irish potato belongs to the nightshade family and has relatives like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and plants like petunias.

Every year, more than 130,000,000 tons of sweet potatoes are produced worldwide with China accounting for almost 90% of the production. It is one of the top five food crops produced in over 50 countries.

Sweet potatoes are primarily grown in tropical to subtropical regions. The top producing locations in the United States are North Carolina, followed by California, Mississippi and Louisiana. Sweet potatoes prefer a daytime temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit with warm nights. Since they require a long growing season, USDA zones 7 to 8 are preferable since these daily daytime and night time temperatures are common in these zones.

Next Up

How and Where to Store Sweet Potatoes

Here are some key instructions on curing and storing sweet potatoes.

How to Store Rutabagas

Rutabagas keeps for months when properly prepared and placed in the right kind of storage space: humid and close to freezing.

Growing Beauregard Sweet Potatoes

Beauregard is one of the world’s most popular sweet potatoes. It offers high-yield and disease-resistance.

How to Grow Yams

Yams and sweet potatoes have been confused for centuries, find out the difference and which one is best to plant in your garden.

The Different Types of Sweet Potatoes

There are over 400 different sweet potato varieties around the world, figure out which is best for your garden.

How To Grow Rutabagas (Swede)

Planting seed in the proper season, along with good soil preparation, will contribute to success with rutabagas.

What's the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and a Yam

If it has brown skin and white flesh, it is still a sweet potato not a yam. White sweet potatoes are grown more often than their orange counterparts.

Growing Rutabaga From Seeds

No need to start rutabaga seeds indoors and then transplant, as these trusty plants grow readily from seeds sown outdoors.

Types of Rutabaga

With nearly a dozen rutabaga types on offer from breeders and growers, the Laurentian rutabaga usually comes out on top for ease of growing.

Do Sweet Potatoes Flower?

Whether it is an edible or ornamental sweet potato, flowers are not usually part of the equation.


Get Social With Us

We love to DIY. You love to DIY. Let's get together.

Consult Our A-Z Guide

Everything You Need to Know

Browse a full list of topics found on the site, from accessories to mudrooms to wreaths.  

How-To Advice and Videos

Get video instructions about kitchens, bathrooms, remodeling, flooring, painting and more.

Watch DIY Downloads Now

Watch DIY Network LIVE

Don't miss your favorite shows in real time online.