How To Grow Yams

Huge_Yams

Today we’ll look at how to grow yams, plus this post will serve as a survival plant profile on my favorite root.

It’s no secret that I love yams. How can you NOT love roots that look like this?!

how to grow yams david the good holding a yam

Learn how to grow yams and EAT LIKE A KING!

I’ve been eating yams daily since we harvested 2015’s crop. I still have about 100lbs left on the back porch.

I cover yams in Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening with great enthusiasm – and they also get a good mention in Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening.

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.

 

Yam Propagation

Many yam species have aerial “bulbils” (roots) that you can plant for the next year’s harvest. Some do not.

Dioscorea_bulbifera_Air_Potato_Blooms

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.

YamPropagation6

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:

Huge_Yams

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.

Growing Yams

 

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.

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:

how to grow yams - edible 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:

Rebel Gardens web graphics-03

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:

learn how to grow yams

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:

Dioscorea-HelenParkey-web

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).

Cooking Yams

 

I cook yams just like white potatoes, though I find they cook faster and brown up nicer than potatoes will.

You can read how I make yam homefries here. They’re great. Once you know how to grow yams, you’ll be eating ’em all the time.

Yams also make wonderful roots for the crockpot and really good French fries. I also really like them shredded with a cheese grater and fried into hashbrowns.

Heck yeah.

There’s also a yam dessert made from the purple ube yam (a variant of Dioscorea alata) I hope to make soon. Check this out:

I don’t know what that tastes like but I want to eat it.

Storing Yams

 

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.

 

Conclusion

 

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!

SpudMeter5

 

 

 

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

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6 comments

  • I bought some “purple sweet potatoes” at the farmers market last weekend that I think might actually be ube. The skin’s all wrong. I’m letting them sprout, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to tell the difference once I see the leaves. Is there another way to tell the difference between a ube yam and a purple sweet potato?

  • I just ordered some dioscorea alata off eBay and will put them in the ground when they get here.

    Would I do better to start them in a pot and put them underneath a tree to climb up or just put them in the ground under the tree?

    I don’t have any trellis or fences for them to climb.

    Link here: http://www.ebay.com/itm/252244647247

  • Hi

    I am working in Papua New Guinea. They love yams there too! It is a spooky sight seeing a fields of very high rickety looking bamboo poles to support the yam vines, cemetery like look. Anyway …
    I was wondering whether “layering” techniques can be applied to the yam vine to increase root tuber, such as you would with a sprawling sweet potato vine? So maybe layering it a little before then allowing it to climb the pole.

    Cheers
    Gregg

    • Gregg – please take photos and send them so I can post! That method of cultivation sounds amazing. Definitely want to see it.

      Yams don’t root all that easily out of the vine and they always want to go up, up, up. I have started them via cuttings, but that doesn’t help the root development. The most exciting varieties are the ones that produce edible aerial tubers along with the below-ground roots. I think more research on those would be valuable. Thanks for stopping by. Send photos! -DTG

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