Foods Hidden in Plain Sight – Sweet Potato Leaves, Stems, and Tubers

by Dr. Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, Food Chemist

Sweet Potato Vines

Throughout the summer and into fall Houston turns to the leafy sweet potato vines to cover large landscaping beds with thick, green or purple growth. These native vines of Africa love Houston’s heat, require little water, and are absolutely beautiful. And they’re food.

Both the green and purple versions are edible, with the purple one being slightly higher in vitamins and minerals.

To prepare

First boil fresh leaves in a bit of water to tenderize them and remove the slight bitterness. Don’t boil them too long, just 2-3 minutes at most, so as to not destroy their vitamin C content.

Luckily, most of the other vitamins and all the minerals they contain aren’t damaged by heat. Along with the leaves, the soft vine tips can also be cooked as above.

Once the boiling step is done you can either freeze them for later or chop them up and sauté them in butter, a bit of oil, or some other cooking fat with garlic (or wild onions!), then add dashes of flavored vinegar, soy sauce, and salt.

Sweet Potato Tubers

In the fall, hidden in the soil of these landscaping beds will be assorted sweet potato tubers.

Note, they won’t look the like smooth, orange yams you’re used to. These “wild” versions will be weirdly shaped, often split, and have white interior flesh beneath a reddish skin.

Because of their odd shapes they’re hard to peel so after scrubbing away any dirt go ahead and roast or boil them with the skin on. You might find the skins to be a bit stringy even after cooking, so if so just remove them to be composted instead of eaten.

The only dangers are the plants may have been treated with a pesticide or fungicide.

If possible, befriend the gardeners/landscapers in charge of the bed and ask them if any chemicals are being used.

If you can’t find anything out you can still use the leaves after soaking them in a solution of ½ cup white vinegar in 4 and ½ cups of water for several minutes then rinsing them well. However, this cleaning method won’t work on the tubers and so that part shouldn’t be eaten if there’s a possible chemical contamination.


About the Author

Mark Vorderbruggen started one of the top foraging sites on the internet in 2008, but he has been a forager all his life. Both his parents’ families used foraged foods to survive during the Great Depression, and they passed their knowledge on to him. Knowing how to harvest nature’s free food fed him through the poverty years of his childhood and while getting a master’s degree in medicinal chemistry and a PhD in physical organic chemistry. For the last 18 years, he has worked as a research chemist in the oil industry, using his knowledge of natural products to develop environmentally friendly replacements for traditional oil field chemicals. However, his evenings and weekends are spent guiding people back to nature’s bounty, not only teaching them which plants are edible and/or medicinal, but also proselytizing how foraging heals the body, mind, and soul … and prepares them for the zombie apocalypse!

* Editors Note: I don’t think it’s going to be Zombies, ha, but hey, it’s good to be prepared for anything! 😉 Knowing how to forage is a good start!

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