Versatile and colorful, the ornamental sweet potato plant is a gardener’s dream. This plant is not only drought-tolerant but also a vigorous grower. It’s perfect as a ground cover in flower beds, or as a lovely-yet-hearty houseplant. Although it blooms on rare occasions, it’s the plant’s foliage that is the featured attraction. Choose from a multitude of varieties featuring interesting leaf shapes and a parade of green, red, purple, bronze, and even multi-colored shades.
Botanists believe that the sweet potato vine has been around for more than 2000 years. Today it is popular, especially in the south. Plant breeders have developed a variety of leaf shapes and colorations in this ornamental species, adding even more visual pizzazz. Some varieties have foliage resembling maple leaves. Other types have variegated, spade-shaped, toothed, lobed, or heart-shaped leaves. The leaves emerge in the spring in vivid colors along trailing vines. Occasionally, a white or lavender-colored flower blooms as well.
The sweet potatoes we love to eat and these ornamental versions are the same species, Ipomoea batatas. Although the ornamental sweet potato plant produces edible sweet potatoes, called tubers, they tend to be bitter and less flavorful than the kind you buy at the grocery store. The plant exerts all of its energy into its foliage rather than towards the flavor traits in its small root vegetables. The flavor dwindles and eventually dies out, resulting in beautiful foliage, but not-so-tasty side dishes.
The ornamental sweet potato is a summer-loving plant. It thrives with plenty of sunlight — at least six hours each day — whether you’re growing it indoors or outdoors. Partial shade is fine. However, the brighter the light, the more colorful the leaves become. These vines tolerate heat well, unless they become too dry.
Plant sweet potato vine slips or seedlings once nighttime temperatures are no lower than the mid-40s. In most locations, this occurs in the spring. You can continue to plant them into the early summer. Colder temperatures can damage these plants. The optimal year-round growing temperature for sweet potato vines is around 70 degrees.
Like many other plants, the sweet potato vine enjoys moist, well-drained soil. Younger plants may require more water until they are established. Mature, healthy plants are drought-resistant, storing water and nutrients in their tubers. They can go up to a week without water. Houseplants are a bit different. They do better if you allow them to go completely dry between waterings, but not dry enough to cause leaf wilt. Never let them sit in a base of standing water.
If you’re planting the vine in a garden, expect it to reach heights of up to 16 inches, depending on the variety. Their vines grow between 10 and 20 feet and the plant itself will achieve a spread of around six feet. The sweet potato vine is also a spectacular basket and container plant. Its vivid vines spill out over the sides, creating a striking and eye-grabbing addition to a patio or porch area.
Although they aren’t climbers, you can train sweet potato vines to grow on a trellis. This not only saves space in your garden but helps keep vine growth in check between prunings. Lattice or wooden trellises work well, but try other options such as large tomato cages, fence panels, or arbors to change up your garden’s aesthetic.
Sweet potato vine varieties offer excellent disease resistance, especially the newer types. However, this plant remains susceptible to fusarium, a type of fungi. If this occurs, the only method of control is disposal. Remove the soil as well and replace it with fresh soil before planting new slips. Also keep an eye out for the golden tortoise beetle, a tiny, iridescent pest that can quickly infest the leaves of your sweet potato vine. Cucumber and flea beetles are also fans of this plant. Neem oil is an effective, natural method for controlling beetle infestations.
Sweet potato vines die back once the cooler weather sets in. This is a good time to harvest the tubers so you’ll have new plants for the next season. Store them in a cool, dark, dry area through the winter. Under these conditions, they’ll begin sprouting tiny new plants from the eyes. In the spring, chop the tuber into chunks, making sure there’s an eye sprout in each chunk. Plant directly into the soil, and soon, you’ll have a fresh batch of vines to enjoy.
If you prefer a specific color scheme in your garden, chances are you’ll find the perfect leaf combination among the many sweet potato vine varieties. Combine them with other plants to create an even more stunning display.