1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sweet Potato

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SWEET POTATO. This plant, known botanically as Ipomaea batatas (formerly as Convolvulus batatas), and a member of the natural order Convolvulaceae, is generally cultivated in most tropical countries for the sake of its tuberous root, which is an article of diet greatly in request. It is a climbing perennial with entire or palmately-lobed leaves very variable in shape borne on slender twining stems. The flowers are borne on long stalks in loose clusters or cymes, and have a white or rosy funnel-shaped corolla like that of the common bindweed of English hedges. The edible portion is the root, which dilates into large club-shaped masses filled with starch. It is ill suited to the climate of the United Kingdom, but in tropical countries it is as valuable as the potato is in higher latitudes. The plant is not known in a truly wild state, nor has its origin been ascertained. A. de Candolle concludes that it is in all probability of American origin, where it has been cultivated from prehistoric times by the aborigines. It is mentioned by Gerard as the “potato,” or “potatus” or “potades,” in contradistinction to the “potatoes” of Virginia (Solanum tuberosum). He grew it in his garden, but the climate was not warm enough to allow it to flower, and in winter it perished and rotted. But as the appellation “common” is applied to them the roots must have been introduced commonly. Gerard tells us he bought those that he planted at “the Exchange in London,” and he gives an interesting account of the uses to which they were put, the manner in which they were prepared as “sweetmeats,” and the invigorating properties assigned to them. The allusions in the Merry Wives of Windsor and other of Shakespeare's plays in all probability refer to this plant, and not to what we now call the “potato.” The plants require a warm sunny climate, long season, and a liberal supply of water during the growing season. For an account of the cultivation in North America, where large quantities are grown in the Southern states, see L. H. Bailey, Cyclopaedia of American Horticulture (1902). Sir George Watt, Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (1890), gives an account of its cultivation in India, where some confusion has arisen by the use of the name batatas for the yam (q.v.) ; the author suggests that the introduction of the sweet potato into India is comparatively recent.