They look like kudzu!
It’s going to be a lot of fun digging these yams up. I think I’ll have to sell quite a few. No way we’ll be able to eat all of them.
They look like kudzu!
It’s going to be a lot of fun digging these yams up. I think I’ll have to sell quite a few. No way we’ll be able to eat all of them.
Andrew found me on YouTube and shared pictures of some very familiar edible wild yams he found on his property:
“I’ve been eating these already, no problems. Here’s pics.”
He continues: “Tedious to harvest by hand though. Need a sheet spread beneath. I’ll try to dig up a root and get a pic of that for you too. These volunteered somehow and on the north side of a large 2 story house with big oak trees keeping it pretty cool and shaded. Plenty of rain from the roof and no gutters.”
When I asked where these vines were located, he wrote “Mebane, NC. Near downtown at a residence.”
So, for those of you who wish you could get in on the yam-growing action but live farther north than yams generally grow, here’s your species: Dioscorea batatas, also known as Dioscorea opposita.
That’s the “yamberry” Eric Toensmeier writes about in his entertaining book Paradise Lot.
And it’s one of the varieties I grew in North Florida. The edible bulbils are featured in this video:
And the long, snaky roots in this one:
And yes, it is an evil invasive species. Very, very evil. Very, very invasive.
The government of Michigan warns about it:
Habitat: This deciduous vine can be found along roadsides, fence rows, stream banks, ditches, and rich, mesic forests. While it tolerates anything from full sun to deep shade, it prefers intermediate light.
Native Range: Asia
U.S. Distribution: Chinese yam has spread to 16 southeastern states since its introduction in the 1800’s and has been recorded in some locations in Michigan.
Local Concern: Chinese yam can grow up to 16 feet in height, engulfing surrounding vegetation along the way. While this vine dies back in the winter, it grows and reproduces quickly enough to reduce plant diversity and threaten native ecosystems.
Michigan is joined in its concern by many other states. I have read reports like the one above that Chinese Yam vines will overrun native species.
But on the bright side, Plants for a Future shares how delicious it is:
Edible Parts: Fruit; Root.
Tuber – cooked[1, 46, 61, 105]. A floury texture with a very pleasant flavour that is rather like a potato[K]. The tubers can be boiled, baked, fried, mashed, grated and added to soups. They store well and for a long time[27, 37] and can also be left in the ground and harvested as required in the winter[K]. This is a top quality root crop, very suitable for use as a staple food[K]. An arrowroot can be extracted from the root, though this is not as good at binding other foods as the starch from D. japonica. The root contains about 20% starch. 75% water, 0.1% vitamin B1, 10 – 15 mg% vitamin C. Fruit. A starchy flavour, it is said to be very good for the health. We wonder if this report is referring to the tubercles[K]. We’ve heard the aerial tubers can be eaten and are very tasty.
It’s obvious what we need to do, right?
We need to eat it! And if perhaps a few plants escape into our gardens every year, well, we should eat those too.
Relying on one root crop for calories isn’t antifragile. Grow potatoes – they’re great. But also add turnips, yams, taro, Jerusalem artichokes, cassava or whatever else works in your climate. In North Carolina, it seems obvious that one decent choice is the Chinese yam.
“I have a question about the yam vines…. I used 7 foot tall tomato cages (I made myself) that were not being used and the vines have reached the top already…. Do I trim them? Do I let them reach for the sky? Being that the yams will take several months or even more than a year I am not sure what the protocol is”
Yams are crazy climbers. I’ve seen them reach the top of a 60-foot tree.
Yet they don’t need the kind of height to make good vines. A 6-7′ stake in full sun is good enough.
I don’t trim the vines. Instead, I throw them back onto the stake and let them keep climbing over each other in a big mess.
When the vines go dormant in winter, dig away. You’ll see the leaves yellow and the vines start to die back. Main tuber formation happens late in the year, so don’t dig them before they go dormant – they’ll be pulling in sugars until the last weeks. If you dig a yam right now, you’ll get almost nothing. Dig that same year in a few months when winter arrives and you’ll have a nice, fat yam.
Here’s what my yam beds look like right now:
Just sticks and sticks and sticks.
Kevin wrote last week and shared some pictures of the yam trellis system a friend uses on the island of Dominica:
“My good friend in Dominica grows alot of yams and only uses a trellis system. It looks like a good clothes line. One #9 wire. A post about every 16ft. Short stake 5 ft from end post. To tie off wire to. The yams climb up plastic bailing twine, or banana cord. So called there. To keep the tree that is heavy with bunch from falling.”
I would love to visit Dominica some day – it’s supposed to be a wonderfully beautiful place with unique topography, vegetation and wildlife.
My current yam trellis system isn’t much of a system – it’s just sticks stuck into the ground for the yams to climb. I’ve had to cut a lot of sticks.
I’m probably going to do something like Kevin’s friend did. I am tired of cutting sticks and I still have a lot more yams to stake.
Yams are very easy to grow but they really need some decent support or they’ll sprawl all over the ground and fail to set good roots.
Fencing is good for them, if you have it.
This is my friend Mart’s yam trellis system:
Those are cattle panels.
I’ve done that too and they’re really good.
Cattle panels are really useful all around.
I used to buy them in 16′ lengths, then cut them in half and use them in an “A” shape for yams, cucumbers, beans and other climbers. The thick wire is quite strong.
Those are mostly yard-long beans, but note the yam in the foreground.
I grew a lotta alata on those.
Simple and cheap is the way to go, in my opinion. I’ve seen some serious long-term trellises made from pressure treated wood with cemented posts… but I rarely do anything all that serious.
Heck, I move every few years anyhow. Might as well use stakes and twine.
Happy Independence Day to my American readers.
I am a direct descendant of John Howland, crew member on the Mayflower. I’m still not sure we should have left the British Empire, honestly, but any holiday that consists of barbecues and blowing things up is okay by me. I also think the Constitution was a bad idea and that the War of Northern Aggression was won by the wrong side, so I know my views are in the minority… and I’d better get to today’s post before one of you reports me to the SJW firing squad or something.
On to the yams. Curtiss shared a video with me on a novel method for propagating yams, from aeroponics to cuttings to the field:
In the video he states that cuttings from yams not grown in aeroponics systems don’t behave the same, implying that cuttings don’t take as easily.
I’m not sure why that would be the case. I am wondering if you could skip the expensive aeroponics setup altogether.
Sure, it looks cool – but I hate plumbing.
I like this part, though:
Also, this part:
I have actually started Dioscorea alata via cuttings. I didn’t realize you could get them to work so well from just a single node, though.
My common method of yam propagation is this:
But what if you don’t have roots? Or what if you want a LOT more yams? The method in the video Curtiss shared is tantalizing in its abundance – you can make a LOT of yam plants via cuttings.
My experiment with growing yams from cuttings was like this: I just took a few little cuttings with a couple of nodes each, then put them in pots and stuck them in a mist house that a friend with a nursery owned. A month or so later, I had rooted yams ready for planting.
No aeroponics required. However, it did have the benefit of regular misting. I’m not sure how yams would root if I just stuck them in pots.
Worth continuing to research, for sure. And I’m sure Curtiss will be experimenting and sharing results. He’s definitely better at building complicated systems than I am.
Grab yourself a big root, a knife and some ashes… it’s time to propagate yams!
Also see the CARDICaribbean video on propagating yams here:
Though I pick on the method in my video because I’m not a fan of soaking yams in pesticides or herbicides, it’s a fine presentation with good information otherwise.
This is the minisett method of yam propagation. If you have bulbils, you can just use those; however, some yam species don’t make bulbils or you may be starting with a store-bought yam and don’t want to plant the whole thing. A good-sized yam can get you a dozen or more plants if you divide it well.
To propagate yams from minisetts, get a fresh yam and cut it into pieces while ensuring you have a good piece of skin on each one from which the new growth will emerge.
You can cut the yam pieces even smaller than I cut them in the video. Half that size will still work. Larger pieces will give you stronger vines, however, so there’s a balance between getting more plants and getting more vigorous plants.
Dip the cut pieces of yam in ashes and let them dry a bit.
Ashes seem to help heal the wound and protect it from infection. It’s a traditional method practiced in places where yams are grown. Pieces will also grow without ashes, but it’s an easy step so I follow it.
It’s important to plant yams in loose soil as they are a root crop.
In Florida sand I just dug a little hold and buried them and they’d get nice and big; however, in clay it’s important to loosen lots of space to give the roots a place to grow.
If you like, you can plant your yam minisetts in a big pot or a bed to ensure you only get ones that will sprout. When the vines start popping out from the ground, transfer your yams to where you would like them to grow – and don’t wait long – the vines will grow fast and become a big tangle if you don’t act quickly.
Ensure each yam has a solid stick they can climb. Shoot for 6-7′ tall poles or ever larger.
This is how I cut stakes:
Alternately, yams can be grown on fences or on trees.
Yam bulbils will also work for planting if you have access to them; however, not all Dioscorea species will make bulbils.
Note: I have successfully propagated Dioscorea alata from cuttings, but I don’t think that method will give you good yields, at least in the first year. If you can’t get roots or bulbils, go for it, though.
Usually it’s just easier to propagate yams by cutting big roots up into minisetts. Try your local ethnic market for yams and other treasures.
With the potato yam, just use entire roots from the cluster without cutting them into pieces, as that is supposed to work better.
Here are the buckets (and a bag) of cut-up yams we planted, plus the still-intact potato yams:
Now it’s time to cut stakes!
Discover more on yams in my survival plant profile.
Some recent reviews of Grow or Die:
Though tropical yams won’t work in colder climates, temperate gardeners will have luck with the Chinese yam, AKA Dioscorea batatas.
Have fun – yams are a wonderful staple crop with good flavor and beautiful vines.
A remarkable yam variety was given to me a few days ago by a friend:
Those are potato yams, AKA “the lesser yam.” They are not sweet potatoes, but a true yam that which in clusters. Its Latin name is Dioscorea esculenta.
The potato yam grows a cluster of roots around a small, central “head” from which the main vine emerges. Each of these roots can be cut off and planted to create a new cluster of roots.
Unlike the greater yam, the lesser yam has very tender skin which can be eaten. The tubers cook rapidly and can be used like a white potato.
All of the roots in the photo above (save two) were planted in beds yesterday. The two I kept back we’re going to eat so we can see how they taste.
It’s a lot of fun finding new vegetable varieties. You can see more of these yams in my latest video:
Tomorrow I hope to post another video on yam propagation.
We planted buckets of yam roots yesterday morning, hacking great big beds into the hillside down by the river. It was brutal work but very satisfying.
Eric Toensmeier mentions edible Dioscorea bulbifera in at least one of his books.
Yet the D. bulbifera growing all over my home state of Florida were anything but edible. Known as “air potatoes,” these guys can mess you up.
According to Infogalactic:
“Uncultivated forms, such as those found growing wild in Florida, can be poisonous. These varieties contain the steroid diosgenin, which is a principal material used in the manufacture of a number of synthetic steroidal hormones, such as those used in hormonal contraception. There have been claims that even the wild forms are rendered edible after drying and boiling, leading to confusion over actual toxicity.”
Yet there are definitely edible versions.
In a video from 2015, I show off a beautiful bulbil I was given by a friend:
The cultivated forms of D. bulbifera really have a lot of potential as a food crop, due to their ease of growing and harvest. Picking roots from the air is a lot better than digging.
As I dug for more info, I found that gardener Jerry Coleby-Williams has a good article with photos of edible Dioscorea bulbifera varieties he’s growing in Australia.
His look quite different from the variety featured in the video above.
Here’s a shot of that crazy angular type:
The two edible Dioscorea bulbifera bulbils I was given this last week look quite different from each other.
The first one looks like it may be the type above, though this is a much smaller bulbil:
The second one I was given looks rather like some of the wild toxic forms I saw in Florida:
That doesn’t mean it is toxic, however – looks aren’t important. The diosgenin content is. If it tastes bitter after cooking, chances are it’s not a good one.
Back in December Grower Jim did a write-up on some of the edible Dioscorea bulbifera types on his site. He writes:
“There are a few different cultivated varieties in circulation; ‘Hawaii’ has dark, rounded tubers with a bumpy skin and glossy sheen. ‘Africa’ has gray, angular tubers with a rougher texture.”
“Hawaii” looks like a less bumpy version of my second edible Dioscorea bulbifera bulbil.
Here’s the video I made yesterday showing both of my edible D. bulbifera bulbils, plus how I planted them:
It seems there are quite a few types of D. bulbifera.
If we are blessed with a good growing year and a harvest, I will taste-test these carefully. One farmer told me that you need to leave the bulbils out on a counter for a while before eating to get rid of the bitterness.
I’ll try that and also cook them well, trying only a little bit the first time. I’m excited to get a chance to grow these guys and will keep you updated.
Don’t get D. bulbifera mixed up with D. alata.
Both grow wild in Florida and other locations and it’s important to not randomly harvest and eat yams. D. alata are delicious and safe – but D. bulbifera in the wild can lead to bad side effects.
Read my post on identifying edible air potatoes in the wild here.
And if you are interested in Florida gardening without work, get my book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening here. I cover yams and many other super-easy crops that will get you growing piles of food in no time.
Last week I created a video on the top 10 tropical staple crops.
It took me way too long to write and edit, so I hope you find it incredibly helpful.
Let’s run through them here, along with a few notes.
Stick to dent corn varieties in warm, hot climates. Corn needs decent soil and plenty of nitrogen but it’s the best grain for production and processing. Much easier to process than small grains like oats, rye and wheat. You need to nixtamalize it with lime or eat it as part of a balanced diet to avoid pellagra, a niacin deficiency which will mess you up.
These are one of my favorite plants to grow. In the tropics, most of the pumpkins grown are C. moschata types, though there are others too. Pumpkins take up a lot of space but make big, storable fruit. On the downside, they’re not that calorie dense and it’s easy to get sick of eating pumpkins.
Breadfruit is delicious and productive, plus it’s a tree so you don’t need to plow and plant like you do with annual staples. They are tough trees though they can’t take any cold. The downside is that the breadfruit come in seasons instead of spread out through the year.
So long as you don’t cut through your hand while opening them, coconuts are very good. They are high in good fats and nutrients, grow easily even in terribly soil, plus require very little work to maintain. The fronds are also useful for crafts, thatching, baskets and more. The downside of coconuts is they are a pain to open.
It’s a fruit! No, it’s a starch!
Unripe bananas and plantains can be cooked and eaten like potatoes or fried like chips, making them a good way to fill in the caloric cracks. Though they are non-seasonal, they do produce better in the rainy season unless you keep them watered. And they like a lot of water! They also like a lot of nitrogen. Plant them around the septic tank and you’re golden.
Malanga, AKA dasheen, has edible leaves (when cooked ONLY) and tubers (ditto). Its cousin taro needs more cooking to neutralize the oxalic acid in the roots. They like a lot of water and grow like weeds in a drainage ditch or shallow pond.
Pigeon peas are a very easy-to-grow nitrogen-fixing tropical staple crop. The dry peas are a good source of protein and the younger peas can be eaten like common green peas. If you have marginal ground, hack holes in it and plant pigeon peas. The downside is that shelling the peas takes way too long. I also find them a bit hard to digest.
Cassava is a carbohydrate bazooka. It’s productive even in bad soil and has roughly twice the calories of white potatoes. Unfortunately, it’s almost devoid of real nutrition. It’s just a blast of carbs. This makes it great for a crisis but not good to eat all the time. The leaves are edible when boiled and are nutrient-rich, so it makes sense to eat the leaves and roots together.
Sweet potatoes have edible greens and roots, produce abundantly in a small space, plus they’re high in calories and nutrition. An excellent choice for survival and non-seasonal.
Yes, I am prejudiced. Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are my favorite staple crop. The flavor is good, they take almost no work to grow, they’ll live on the margins of a food forest and they’ll even grow and produce when guerilla planted in the woods. Grow some – you’ll be impressed.
Any combination of these ten tropical staple crops could keep you alive in a crisis. I recommend planting more than one of them for variation in diet, plus redundancy. IF cassava does badly one year, you’ll still have pigeon peas. If the malanga doesn’t get enough water, maybe the corn will come through. Experiment and see what grows best in your area.
Did I miss one of your favorite tropical staples? Leave me a note and let me know.