The Sweet Potato

The natural traveler

The plant is a perennial herbaceous vine with heart-shaped leaves, often used as a decorative plant. The Sweet Potato (Ipomoea Batatas) is its tuberized root, belonging to the Convolvulaceae family, and despite the familiar name, it has nothing to do with the traditional potato, which belongs to the Solanaceae tuber family. The sweet potato is typically long and tapered, with a smooth skin that varies in color between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh, on the other hand, ranges from beige to white, red to purple, or yellow to orange. In fact, there is a vast number of species today (over 1,000), thanks to the incredible robustness and adaptability of the plant to various regions of the planet.

The origin of the sweet potato is fairly certain, but despite refined contemporary research technologies, there is still an air of mystery surrounding how it spread. The most accredited theory sees the sweet potato as originating from Central America, more precisely from the area that extends from the Mexican region of Yucatan to the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It is believed that the wild plant, an ancestor of the sweet potato, made its first appearance in this region and was definitely cultivated before 3000 BC. The Central American origin of the sweet potato is evidenced by genetic tests carried out on plants reported by Captain James Cook, the first European to visit the Polynesian islands in 1769, where there are traces of the larger South American sisters of Ipomoea Batatas, but dated much earlier than the discovery of America (1492). This has led to numerous studies and research aimed at confirming or denying the discovery of the sweet potato in pre-Columbian times. A recent study by researcher Caroline Roullier shows the possibility that in the 11th century AD, when shipbuilding knowledge had already reached a good stage, Polynesian populations had crossed the Pacific to reach the coasts of Peru or Ecuador and then returned with sweet potato roots. Other research shows genetic traces of the Zenú in Polynesia, a pre-Columbian population originating from the coasts of Colombia and still active today, leaving open the possibility that they may have made the arduous journey across the Pacific. Finally, one of the most credited studies, by researcher Muñoz-Rodríguez, shows how the same leaves reported by Captain Cook from Polynesia, still preserved today in the Natural History Museum in London, have a very rare genetic heritage.

It seems that this variety separated from all the others about 110,000 years ago, while humans reached New Guinea only 50,000 years ago and the Pacific islands only a few millennia ago. From the age of the sweet potatoes in the Pacific, it seems therefore improbable that the varieties were moved from Latin America by any human. Researchers are traditionally skeptical about whether a plant like the sweet potato can naturally travel across thousands of miles of ocean, but recently, they discovered that many plants followed that path, floating on water or carried in pieces by birds. For example, the Hawaiian bellflower only lives in the dry forests of Hawaii, but its closest relatives all live in Mexico. Scientists estimate that the Hawaiian bellflower was separated from its relatives and made the journey across the Pacific over a million years ago. The mystery remains, which is why researchers have committed to further studies, especially in light of the fact that the various names by which the sweet potato is called indicate some contact and cultural exchange between the populations of Central and South America and those of the Pacific. In Mexico and Central America, the sweet potato is known by the name ‘Camote’, as in the Philippines, where the alternative ‘kamote’ has been chosen, derived from the Nahuatl language (camotli). Finally, a particular variety of sweet potato in Peru is called ‘Kumar’ in Quechua, surprisingly similar to the Polynesian name ‘Kumara’.

The sweet potato is among the five healthiest foods in the world, according to the ranking of the CSPI (Center of Science in the Public Interest – USA), thanks to the concentration of beneficial substances important for our bodies. This tuber root can be consumed raw, unlike the traditional potato, with its sugar content lower by 30%. The sweet potato is rich in fibers and carotenoids that help control cholesterol levels and glycemia. This effect is also due to a particular substance called Cajapo, which reaches its highest concentrations in the skin, completely edible. The sweet potato is an excellent ally for cardiovascular health and the nervous system, thanks to its content of vitamins from groups A, C, B, and E, in addition to some proteins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium. Finally, it is rich in flavonoids and anthocyanins, providing excellent antioxidant properties. For this reason, it is also found as an extract in the composition of some creams to provide anti-aging power.

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