I found an edible air potato (winged yam) patch near my place. In today’s episode, we talk about identifying Dioscorea alata as opposed to its sometimes poisonous cousin Dioscorea bulbifera.
The winged yam is a tasty root. If I were to choose a favorite survival staple, it would have to be any of the true yams.
I’ve found edible air potatoes to be excellent as homefries and hash browns. Cassava is faster and a bit easier to grow under adverse conditions, but the yams are a close second. And they taste better.
Malanga tastes good but needs more water to be happy. Sweet potatoes are prolific but too sweet to substitute for white potatoes. Yams just hit the sweet spot. Too bad the invasive nature of D. bulbifera has poisoned the well for edible air potatoes!
Dioscorea alata – the “edible air potato” or “winged yam” – is one of my favorite wild edible plants.
Check out this root I found growing at the base of a tree:
That’s 27lbs of root there.
(And yes, I was out digging in the rain.)
There’s a patch of rough woods by a gas station near my place that is loaded with Dioscorea alata plants, just waiting to be eaten. (For a guide on identifying the edible ones, click here.)
According to my calculations, this one tuber contains 14,220 calories. That’s enough food for 7 days.
Even better, the winged yam isn’t a bland root like canna or a sweetish root like cassava.
The winged yam tastes like a good white potato. You could eat it on a daily basis for a while without going nuts.
If you were to grow edible air potatoes on purpose, you’d start with one of the hanging aerial bulbils or a piece of root and plant it at this time of year an inch or two deep near a tree or a trellis the vines can climb.
The first year the root or bulbil grows a bit bigger, maybe into a few pound tuber. The second year it goes insane, making a gigantic root that looks like the one I found.
Quite a specimen, isn’t it?
It’s amazing what you can find growing in Florida’s woods. I love this great state.
Edible air potato, also known as winged yam or “name”, is a fantastic root crop for Florida.
I found a nice 6lb one growing the other day and Mrs. Survival Gardener made it for dinner, taking pictures as she went.
It’s almost too simple to call it a recipe, but I will anyhow. Folks keep asking me for recipes for the various bizarre roots and shoots I recommend/sell/forage/grow, so I’m going to start posting them.
Edible Air Potato Homefries
1 winged yam root (white/yellow type – purple types have a different flavor) 1 cup beef tallow Salt/garlic powder to taste
After you have your root, interrupt your husband while he’s watering plants and have him wash it for you.
Once you have a washed root, it’s time to start peeling.
A carrot peeler works well, though sometimes there are nooks and crannies that require a paring knife. If your yam isn’t shaped like the continent of Africa, fear not; it’s still edible. (They often do look like Africa but that’s likely just because it’s the original home of this marvelous root. A theory! That’s a scientific theory! MY very scientific theory! Don’t steal it!)
Once your root is peeled, start chopping it up.
Then chop it up more. Winged yams are really slick and slimy when raw but that goes away completely when they’re cooked. You want about half-inch chunks or else they’ll be hard to fry. Speaking of frying, this is the time to heat up that tallow in a good pan and start tossing pieces into it.
If you don’t have tallow, I feel bad for you. Ours is from grass-fed beef fat I rendered down myself… it’s amazing stuff for all types of cooking as well as being nutrient dense.
Lard works well also, as does coconut oil, though that imparts a flavor all its own.
Keep stirring your pieces around just like you’d fry potatoes, making sure they keep turning into the oil and browning without burning. (Winged yams are excellent for frying and also make particularly good hash browns).
After about 10-15 minutes, you’ll have nicely done homefries. Sprinkle with garlic powder and salt and voila – winged yam homefries!
I like to eat them with ketchup but my wife thinks that’s evil. She eats them with mustard.
That’s it. The flavor is like that of potatoes but with a better, finer texture. They’re excellent and don’t contain solanine so they won’t make your joints hurt like spuds can.
In future months I’ll post more recipes for various non-typical crops and weeds. Stick around!
The generally non-edible variety is Dioscorea bulbifera. (I say “generallynon-edible” because there are in fact wonderfully productive and safe cultivars of D. bulbifera – you’ll just have a hard time finding them in the wild and consuming them safely without a laboratory)
There’s a different look to the leaves, but the dead giveaway is the bulbils that form in late summer and fall. D. alata bulbils look like this:
D. bulbifera bulbils look like this:
So basically, if your bulbils are nice-looking, they’re probably the inedible type. You want dark, ugly things, not nice round asteroid-like bulbils.
My wish-I’d-met-her unknown gardening gal Helen Parkey was growing D. alata.
D. bulbifera doesn’t usually produce much in the way of underground tubers here in Florida… but D. alata can make awesome, delicious roots that are the perfect ingredient for the best hashbrowns and homefries ever.
An edible air potato root
Rycamor and I found that yam growing beneath a large oak in a backyard.
The edible air potato is propagated via cuttings and via planting the hanging bulbils in the fall. Overseas it’s a staple root crop. Here in the land of the free, however, this plant is on the invasive species list so it can’t be sold by nurseries… even though, somehow, ebay has it, as I mentioned earlier.
Fortunately, Dioscorea alata can be found growing wild at this time of year and the bulbils are easy to identify.
Here’s a video I did on the edible air potato you might also find helpful:
When you find an edible air potato growing in the wild, chase the vine down to the ground and start digging for free food – you’ll please your local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and your tastebuds at the same time.
I wish I’d met this Floridian grower of winged yams…
Helen Parkey showing off winged yam roots
I was on ebay a couple of weeks ago and came across a fascinating original press photo for sale. In it, as you can see, a woman is showing off a massive clump of Dioscorea tubers growing in her garden, also known as winged yams.
Since I’m a fan of both yams and eccentric gardeners, I purchased it.
The photo was originally taken by photographer Steve Dozier to illustrate a story by Hazel Geissler in the St. Petersburg Times that ran on April 20, 1979. I was born later that same year.
The woman in the picture is Helen Parkey. The back of the photo gives some details, plus a piece of the article:
According to the text, Helen was growing and eating the roots for years before knowing what they were or if they were edible.
My kind of gal.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any more information on Helen or her family or her story. The writer of the article passed away some time ago. If anyone knows more about Helen Parkey, I’d love to hear about it. I’m thinking of calling the newspaper on the off chance they have more info or a complete copy of the original article… Ms. Parkey seems like my kind of gardener, though I’m sure she’s long since passed into the next life.
Maybe we’ll meet again up there.
I’m sure, unlike the state of Florida, God doesn’t classify Dioscorea alata as a hateful non-native invasive. I’ll just keep on walking down the streets of gold until I see a trellis covered with rambling vines, bedecked with dangling bulbils and sporting pointed heart-shaped leaves…
And, double-plus good, our new friend Captain Erika took pictures of the gig and was kind enough to send a few my way.
One final bit of awesomeness: before the gig, I discovered a huge Dioscorea alata yam in the woods near rycamor’s place. The two of us dug it out (with much effort, since it was in clay). It was likely 10lbs or so. I’ll post pictures and share more on that species later this week.