Today we’ll look at how to grow yams, 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?!
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.
Many yam species have aerial “bulbils” (roots) that you can plant for the next year’s harvest. Some do not.
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.
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:
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.
Check out my video on propagating yams here:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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).
I cook yams just like white potatoes, though I find they cook faster and brown up nicer than potatoes will.
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 – you just have to be careful, though, as some varieties are high in oxalic acid and can scratch your throat.
Here’s how Rachel prepares yams and adds them to stew:
Note the gloves!
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.
Wash them well, then wear gloves as you peel them. Once they are peeled, chop them up and cook until fork-tender. They are very good in soups and stews and can also be boiled and used like mashed potatoes.
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.
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!
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