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!
How many roots do Americans eat on a regular basis?
I can think of a few: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and beets.
Beyond those, you might occasionally use leeks, turnips, rutabagas or parsnips. If you have a yuppie grocery store, you might even find Jerusalem artichokes.
Yet on the grand and glorious palette of edible tubers, rhizomes, corms and bulbs… the grocery store is but a single swatch. Many excellent edibles are off the radar for most of us. We live in a consumer age where mass production and marketing – not to mention increasing urbanization and disconnectedness from the land – have narrowed down our diet to a few shippable and easily produced selections.
Most Americans could wander through my yard (provided I didn’t shoot them for trespassing) and never really see the many edible plants and roots around them. It looks like shrubs, trees, weeds, flowers, creepers and ornamentals… yet there’s food everywhere. Granted, if you prepare some of these crops wrong you’ll get sick or die, but they’re food nonetheless.
Today I’m going to focus on roots and take you on a tour through a few species worth adding to your homestead. The variety may surprise you – and you may even have some of these crops growing wild in your neighborhood already.
Let’s take a look at 8 staple root crops you can hide in plain sight.
Chufa is classified as an invasive weed in some states. That’s my kind of crop! If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em! Chufa is an ancient staple also known as “tiger nuts.” The edible part is a small roughly 1/2″ corm that develops in networks of roots around the base of the plant. Overall, since it’s a sedge, the chufa plant looks a lot like a weedy clump of grass. The roots are reportedly delicious. (I’m working on growing my first crop of them this summer and I’ll let you know how they turn out in the fall.)
2. Winged Yams
I’ve written an entire post on the winged yam, also known in Latin as Dioscorea alata. Winged yams have a vigorously climbing vines and can develop massive roots up to 100 lbs or more. Plus, they taste great.
If you live north of USDA growing zone 8, you might not be able to grow winged yams; however, you’re likely to have luck with their more cold-hardy relative Dioscorea opposita. That one also has edible bulbils which dangle from the stems in profusion and can be used without digging.
This is a weird root crop in the carrot and parsley family. I haven’t tried them yet here in Florida since they like the cold and we don’t have much of that here, however, for northern gardeners this is famed as a delicious and sweet perennial, though it has woody cores inside the roots.
No one will know what you’re growing when they see this 3′ tall bush with white flowers – and they certainly won’t know what it is if they see its thick cluster of gray-white roots.
4. Duck Potatoes
Do you have a pond or swamp area on your property? Then you may already have this productive North American staple and not know it. Lewis and Clark lived on duck potatoes during much of their famous journey. Also known as wapato and Arrowhead, duck potatoes are a very common aquatic plant across much of the United States. Their many edible tubers are bitter raw but very good when cooked. Indian women used to harvest them with their feet. My wife is part Cherokee and I find this really foxy.
Where was I?
Oh yeah… staple roots. Let’s move on. Quickly.
5. Ground Nuts
Ground nuts get confused with peanuts but they’re not anything like peanuts, other than the fact that they both exist inside the great big Fabaceae family and fix their own nitrogen.
Ground nuts, in Latin, are known as Apios Americana and like duck potatoes were a staple of Indians back in the day. (“Back in the day” is the technical term for “before they were run off by expansionist Europeans.”) They’re a vining crop that produces strings of tubers beneath the ground. I’ve read that they can become invasive but haven’t grown them long enough on my homestead to find out.
I hope they are. I like invasive food…
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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…