One of my favorite crops of all-time is the oft-overlooked yam.
I like those, but those are sweet potatoes. They are not yams. Never call them yams.
These are yams:
And those wonderful roots grow wild here in the mysterious tropical locale we now call home.
They are in the jungle, just waiting to be dug. And at this time of the year, they have produced bulbils which can be used for planting.
Yesterday Rachel and I took a hike down the mountainside, across the river, then up the other side into the jungle.
It was a combination of bulbil hunt and hard exercise.
By the way, that tall tropical grass there makes a great mulch/compost amendment/fertilizer. Cut it down and let it lay on the ground… it turns into beautiful humus and brings in lots of life.
But I digress.
This hunt for yam bulbils for planting isn’t a new thing for me.
I did it for multiple years in North Florida as well, where the exact same delicious species of yam grows in the wild, just as it does here in the tropics. The state of Florida calls it an invasive. I call it an awesome source of high-quality calories and I’m GLAD it invaded the state.
Heck with you fuddy-duddies and your invasive species lists.
All hail Dioscorea alata – the winged yam!
I love these things. They taste remarkably like a potato, though I actually think they taste a little better, and they take almost no work to grow.
If you hunt for bulbils a few months from now you aren’t likely to find any – you really only get them during the winter months when the vines have entered their dormancy cycle after fattening up the bulbils, which start falling to the ground as the vines wither. The bulbils are just aerial roots with a more entertaining name.
Snag them if you can find them, then plant now through early spring. And make the bulbil hunt fun. Rachel and I did.
My sister Christi spent almost a week with us and while she was here, we had to make a video together:
What says “family togetherness” better than filming a crossfit parody?
This is yam season right now and there are yams growing wild all through the jungle. When the vines start to die back, the roots are ready to dig. They’ll sit in dormancy for months, then spring back into growth sometime in the spring.
These are my old friend Dioscorea alata, though they are the white/yellow type, not the purple variety. I haven’t seen any purple ones here.
Digging yams is a pain in the clay here. You can see the trouble they give me in this recent video:
We got a good harvest, but man… the clay is thick. It’s probably better for pottery than gardening! If you want to know more about growing yams, I have an in-depth post here.
If You Don’t Think I’m Funny It’s Your Own Fault
Though I’ve been posting goofy videos for years, people still don’t seem to get my jokes.
My IQ is in the top 2% of the population. At least.
If you don’t understand why I’m doing something, it may just be because you’re unable to grasp it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our own gifts.
Machete Safety is a meta-narrative that works on multiple dimensions.
I claimed it was a joke – but it’s not just a joke. Though on its face it appears to be Rachel wearing my clothes and re-enacting my machete injury, in reality it’s a treatise on my fears that String Theory fails to adequately explain the physical universe.
Seriously – is it that hard to grasp that the machete represents quantum gravity? Anyone?
Of course, it’s possible that Michael’s comment was representative of perturbation theory… which would completely blow my mind. It could make sense, as the complexity of my theory might be challenged by his simplistic “not actually informative” rebuke, following the natural chain of Hamiltonian disruption.
However, the “good info mixed in with noise” sounds like the popular Chaos Theory silliness that took off after Jurassic Park instead of a rational response to my symbolic shrug in the face of the blurry edges of modern physics.
Well, you can’t win them all.
Alternately, these interchanges may occur because my sense of humor, though funny to me, simply doesn’t translate. I know a very high IQ guy who doesn’t think I’m funny at all.
I don’t care. I still giggle like a middle schooler when I put together some of these videos. I can’t tell you how much I laughed creating In Seach of Bilimbi, even though the critics panned that one.
An alternate theory: maybe I just want to know what love is?
Seriously, though – the yamfit video is funny. Enjoy and share on Facebook.
Christi is a natural comic – let’s make that girl a star!
It’s been too long since the last update on The Great South Florida Food Forest Project.
Mom sent me photos from just before Hurricane Matthew limped past the coast. There was no damage after the storm but the clouds in the pictures look amazing.
First, take a look at the tropical almond (background) and the black sapote (foreground, right):
See that little Senna alata (AKA candlestick cassia) growing to the left of the chocolate pudding fruit tree? We planted some of those when establishing the food forest and they seem to have naturalized… all over the place.
Now take a look at the avocado seedling:
It’s over 6′ tall now and is a Thai type which makes huge avocados the size of honeydew melons. It just needs to get big so it can start bearing!
Here’s another look at the chocolate pudding fruit tree:
Definitely getting taller and it looks very happy. Those are passionfruit and yam vines growing in the fence behind it.
Now check out the starfruit tree:
Mom reports that this tree produces gallons and gallons of fruit twice a year with long harvest seasons. The fruit are very good and sweet. Quite refreshing. Note the cassava on the right side of the image. The fallen sticks all over the ground are chopped-and-dropped Tithonia diversifolia stems. Great food for the soil.
Here’s a good looking chaya growing in front of the neighbor’s fence:
Out in the front yard, Dad prepared for Hurricane Matthew by cutting back the acerola cherry:
That tree bears year-round and has sweet fruit. It’s been a huge blessing to my nieces and nephews, not to mention the children of the many friends who visit my parents’ place. They all love fresh-picked cherries!
Another big blessing has been the mango tree. It bears large crops of fine-fleshed wonderfully sweet orange-fleshed mangoes.
The ferns on the ground beneath it planted themselves. I love those “accidents” of nature.
Here you can see the mango to the left, coconut palms in foreground left, moringa tree in center and the Thai avocado to the right. Yam vines (Dioscorea alata) are draping across the trees through the center.
Now here’s a nice tree to see: the 6th Street Mulberry is flying!
That is going to be a lovely, multi-branched tree. It’s already been bearing fruit. Hard to believe it looked like this not long ago:
Here’s a view of the profusion from the other side. Isn’t this MUCH more interesting than a lawn?
Moringa, cassava, mango, yams, sunflowers, mother-in-law tongues, ferns, orchids, starfruit, bananas… it’s a lovely mess of great plants!
Here’s another view of the starfruit with the moringa on its right:
And back around to the front yard again, on the other side, to see the tamarind and the canistel:
That canistel is now my height (tree in foreground) and the tamarind is almost 4 times my height. I love to see them both growing happily.
If you’re interested in starting your own Florida food forest, you’ll find inspiration and lots of ideas for plant species in my little book Create Your Own Florida Food Forest.
This is a great way to use your property. As the trees mature, you get more and more fruit… for less and less work. My parents aren’t even “plant people” and they greatly enjoy seeing the trees grow and having all the extra fruit to share with friends and family.
Go for it – you have nothing to lose but your boring grass!
If you’re not growing yams, why not? Purple ube yams in particular are just fun.
Purple ube yam is grown just like the regular white types. Here’s how to grow ’em.
How To Grow Purple Ube Yam
Get Your Starts
First, get yourself a purple ube yam root or a bulbil.
This is the hard part. Try ebay or your local permaculture or gardening group.
If you have a full root, divide it up like this into minisetts. If you have bulbils, you don’t need to cut them up.
Planting Your Yams
Last year I planted my yam pieces into a big pot during the winter, then transplanted them out to my food forest when they sprouted in the spring.
You can also just plant them in place anytime from fall through spring. I plant yam roots or bulbils just an inch or two down. That’s enough to keep the frosts from getting them.
Place yam starts at the base of something they can climb. A tree, a fence, a trellis – anything they can grab. You’ll be surprised at how vigorous the vines can be. You can plant them in a somewhat shady spot and they’ll climb a tree up into the light and help themselves to the sunshine.
Keeping Yams Going
You really don’t need to do much. Just throw some compost on them if you think of it. Water when you remember.
Harvesting Your Yams
Yams usually go dormant in the winter (or freeze down) and that’s the time to start digging. I wait until the second year for bigger yams. That’s right: I plant my yams two years before I hope to eat them.
This really isn’t a big deal. It’s not like they need any care.
Purple ube yam isn’t as vigorous as the yellow or white yams in my experience. The roots are maybe half the size of the monster white ones. Dig carefully. There’s one big root at the base of the vine and it often gets bigger as it goes beneath the surface like an iceberg.
During the first year, your yam vine will produce a few bulbils in the fall. The second year, it will make a lot more. Here’s me harvesting purple ube yam bulbils from a 2+ year old vine:
Purple ube yams are really a marvelous and beautiful crop that’s certain to impress your friends and family.
I find it incredible that they’re almost NEVER covered in Florida gardening books. Come on, folks!
Most people confuse yams with sweet potatoes but they are not the same crop at all. Sweet potatoes are in the Ipomoea family, whereas yams are in the completely different Dioscorea family. No relation!
Now I’m going to cover growing yams and propagation here, so you, the cheapskate internet reader, can benefit from my research without buying my book. (Though if you do buy one of my books, you’ll be my friend forever.)
How To Grow Yams
First of all, you need to figure out what type of yams you’re going to grow. There are the “name” yams you get from the ethnic markets (and often from Publix supermarkets, if you have those in your area), then there are the “water yams,” also known as “winged yams” or, most properly Dioscorea alata, and there are also edible forms of Dioscorea bulbifera (the dreaded “air potato”) that make airborne roots you can eat, and, of course, there’s the cold-hardy Chinese yam of “yamberry” fame, then…
…well, let’s just say there are a LOT of yams.
I’ll try to cover the basics on how to grow yams, then get into some details on individual species. Let’s start first with how to propagate yams.
Many yam species have aerial “bulbils” (roots) that you can plant for the next year’s harvest. Some do not.
Dioscorea bulbifera blooms
Yams are only rarely grown from seeds except for breeding purposes – and if you live in the US, you’re unlikely to have a long enough warm season or proper light cycles for them to even bloom.
The normal method of propagation is via bulbils for the varieties that produce bulbils, and via divided roots for those that do not.
If you don’t have bulbils, you need to make “minisetts.” All that requires is a good yam root, a knife, and perhaps some ashes to ward off potential soil pests.
Cut your yam root into chunks about the size of a peach, dip them in ashes, then plant them.
I put a bunch of yams into a big pot full of dirt, then I transplanted the ones that sprouted into my gardens and food forest, resulting in this pile of roots:
Not all of your yam minisetts will grow; however, most will root and give you some yields.
Another method I haven’t read much about is starting yams from cuttings. I had good luck rooting yam cuttings in a mist house last year. It was surprising how easily yam cuttings rooted. I don’t know if give you as big of a harvest the first year if you start them from cuttings, but I do know they’ll root.
Yams need something to climb – they’re vigorous vines and will happily shoot to the top of a tree if given half a chance.
I plant mine just under the surface of the soil near something – anything! – they can climb when they emerge.
I’ve grown yams on fences, on trellises, on an unused clothesline and even on a pollarded sweetgum tree I used as a living trellis.
If you have bulbils or minisetts available, plant them in fall, winter or early spring.
Yams have a growing season and a dormant season. Where I live in Florida, they grow vigorously through spring and summer and into the fall, die back and eventually freeze down in the winter.
As the growing season progresses, they start making their bulbils (if they’re a yam that does that) which mature in the fall. The below-ground root really seems to do a lot of its growing into the fall as well, preparing for the winter ahead.
Some species are grown JUST for their bulbils, such as the rare edible forms of Dioscorea bulbifera:
Those can be cooked and consumed like potatoes and the main root stays in the ground, sending up vines and new harvests of aerial roots year after year. More on the amazing edible Dioscorea bulbifera here:
Another yam, the cold-tolerant Chinese yam (Dioscorea opposita) can be grown for both its large underground roots and its tiny little edible bulbils. Here’s my video on that really cool species:
Yams don’t need a care or watering to stay alive, though taking care of them will raise your yields and reduce the time needed until harvest. The yams I grew in great garden soil with lots of compost and water made big roots in their first year; the ones I grow without any care whatsoever generally took two years to make big roots.
Folks spend all their time trying to learn how to grow tomatoes; instead, they should give up and learn how to grow yams! Way easier, though not as good in salsa.
You can find winged yams growing wild in the South occasionally, with no gardener in the picture. I pulled this one from beneath a tree in some crummy sand and clay in Summerfield, Florida when I was out wild foraging:
It was delicious.
Speaking of wild foraging, the invasive Dioscorea bulbifera or “air potato” can be found all over the place but it’s not safe to eat. Most wild strains will mess you up and there’s no safe way to figure out which, if any, you can eat. The root above, however, is Dioscorea alata and those are always edible. I found it growing right near a huge patch of non-edible Dioscorea bulbifera and identified it by its leaves and dangling bulbils. Here’s how to tell the difference:
Since yams are a perennial crop, you can simply plant them one year and then dig them a year or three later when you’re hungry. Look at these:
You can bet that’s not just one year’s growth.
(That’s an old newspaper photo I own of St. Pete resident Helen Parkey back in the 70s. I would love to have more information about her or her family, but I haven’t had any luck.)
I usually dig yams when they’re two years old, though I got some pretty big 1-year yams this year (again, in my nicely tended garden).
I cook yams just like white potatoes, though I find they cook faster and brown up nicer than potatoes will.
I don’t know what that tastes like but I want to eat it.
Yams keep pretty well on the counter. Unlike potatoes, you don’t have to worry about them greening up and poisoning you. If you store them under moist conditions, they’ll start growing roots. I left some in a plastic bag once and they did just that, so I ended up chopping them up and planting them instead of putting them on the table for dinner.
The best place to keep yams is right in the ground, then you can dig and eat them as needed.
If you have a great big root, you can actually break or cut pieces off of it and the cuts will dry up pretty well without ruining the rest of the root.
This is good when you have a 40lb monster to consume.
If you can find yams to grow, grow them! This is my top survival root for tropical and subtropical regions. Growing yams is easy and the roots taste great.
Now that I’ve told you how to grow yams, hunt down some roots or bulbils and get planting!
SPUDOMETER RATING: 5 SPUDS!
Name: Yams, Chinese yams, ube, name, etc. Latin Name:Dioscorea spp. Type: Vining perennial Nitrogen Fixer: No Medicinal: Some species Cold-hardy: No, though roots live through freezes Exposure: Full sun/part shade Part Used: Roots, bulbils on some species Propagation: Roots, bulbils, cuttings Taste: Very good Method of preparation: Baked, fried, stewed Storability: Excellent in ground, good on the counter Ease of growing: Very easy Nutrition: Low – mostly just carbohydrates Recognizability: Low Availability: Low
If you plant your yams in a nice, fertile spot with good water, they’ll grow even faster. I got a 10lb root from one of those “minisetts” mentioned in the link above. Since yams are perennial, if you feel around and think the root is small, wait another year. It’ll get a lot bigger.
Interestingly, one of the very few negative reviews I got about the book was this one on Amazon:
Joseph has unwittingly hit upon one of my main goals when I wrote the book: introducing Florida gardeners to lesser-known crops that will thrive in the state.
Rather than writing just another gardening book on how to grow tomatoes, onions and “Straight 8” cucumbers, I sought out and tested new edibles. The book will help you grow typical crops, sure – but the focus is on MORE FOOD for LESS WORK!
Finding some of the crops in the book takes a little effort but it’s not hard when you connect up with local permaculture and gardening groups in your area. Make a wish list and start asking around – you’ll find them.
Heck, I could easily have called the book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening: The Secret to LITERALLY Growing Piles of Food in the Sunshine State.
I think a big problem with most Florida gardening books is that they’re still stuck on growing crops that just aren’t perfect for this area.
Yams totally fit this climate… so why not learn to eat them?
Three Crops That Will Feed You In Florida
Here, just consider these three crops that would feed you in Florida with ALMOST NO WORK that you’re not going to find in most any other gardening book:
Yams (easy to grow 1,000lbs worth by scattering them along the edges of your property)
Chaya (greens, endless nutritious greens!)
Yard-long Beans (also known as snake beans)
Yard-long beans only need a bit of clear ground and a trellis to load you up with more green beans than you can eat. Chaya can be turned into a hedge that produces greens that taste better than spinach and are sweeter than collards… and yams are so stupid easy to grow that I don’t understand why they aren’t everywhere.
So sure, complain that these crops aren’t all that easy to find. I understand that – some of them took me a while to nail down, too. Yet once you have ’em, you have ’em! And there are a lot more crops in the book that will surprise and amaze you with their productivity and excellent flavor.
Back to yams.
How To Find Yams To Grow
Yams are actually easy to find. There are some that grow in the wild as escaped crops, like these:
You can find that type (Dioscorea alata) wherever people have been, usually near old homesteads and scattered here and there. I don’t know how many were planted deliberately, but I do know that they seem to be in more disturbed areas and near roadsides.
You can also find the more well-behaved non-invasive yams for your garden at Oriental markets and even in Publix. Look for “name” yams.
Why spend tons of work growing potatoes when you can grow huge yams instead?
Dioscorea bulbifera is the common wild variety of air potato that will mess you up if you eat it.
To make things complicated, however, there are some edible cultivars – though they’re very rare. As a crop, they have awesome potential. Imagine a staple root you don’t have to dig up!
I was given one – check it out:
Looks different from the wild ones, doesn’t it? The shape is quite sculptural. The edible Dioscorea bulbifera bulbils look like a Gaudi sculpture.
The wild, toxic Dioscorea bulbifera bulbils look like this:
Round and very not-edible.
Those contain high levels of diosgenin, and that will mess you up.
Here, check out my new video on the edible Dioscorea bulbifera:
Seriously – isn’t that the coolest thing ever?
A Potential Staple Crop Cast Aside
Unfortunately, the air potato beetles released by UF eat the edible Dioscorea bulbifera so the era of this potentially being the perfect easy-to-grow staple “root” crop are already over before they had a chance to begin.
They are about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen:
Wish they were as easy to grow as they were before the beetles were released.
Dioscorea bulbifera is potential staple root crop that could be harvested without digging, and its potential has already been wrecked by the government’s deliberate release of an insect pest.
Look – when something grows SO GREAT as to be an invasive, why not figure out HOW TO USE IT?
Yes, the wild air potato vines are a pain-in-the-neck. They grow on their own with no care and have spread all over the state.
But, if instead of releasing a pest to kill the wild menace, UF decided to work on growing edible Dioscorea bulbifera cultivars, they could have given the state an incredible new staple crop!
No. Instead they decided to release a voracious pest that will render future cultivation of edible air potatoes difficult at best.
I really don’t understand the way these researchers think.
My goal has always been to grow the most amount of food for the least amount of work. When you have something that’s potentially a great edible crop or has excellent uses, why not just take the cards you’ve been dealt and press towards utilizing that “pest?”
Dioscorea bulbifera could have been the next Idaho potato.
I know, not a very good shot. These things are tall, though, so I choose to blame their verticality for the poor framing rather than my tepid photography skills.
Also known as Dioscorea batatas, the Chinese yam is usually grown for its edible root; however, they also grow small edible bulbils that are reportedly tasty.
I say “reportedly” because I haven’t eaten any yet. Last year was their first year on my homestead so I saved the few tiny bulbils they produced to use for planting purposes.
As for where the report on this plant’s usefulness and edibility originally comes from, I give credit to Eric Toensmeier.
His book Paradise Lot is a must-read for those interested in transforming small yards and marginal spaces into permaculture Edens. It’s also just a fun book with a lot more personal storytelling than most gardening works.