The sweet potato plant or sweet potato vine has been cultivated for around 2,000 years for its sweet tasting tubers. It is said that Columbus brought the plant to Europe from the New World on his expedition (Missouri Botanical Garden). Though the variety of sweet potato plant that produces the edible tubers can be planted for its trailing vines, more recently, different variations have been cultivated specifically for their ornamental foliage. The ornamental sweet potato vine is not grown for edible consumption.
It does produce sweet potato tubers, and though these won't cause any harm if eaten, they tend to be bland and bitter. It is also worth noting that it is ill-advised to eat any element of a sweet potato vine that has not been specifically cultivated for food purposes, without knowing what pesticides may have been used on it that could be harmful when ingested.
Instead of being grown for the tubers, the sweet potato vine is grown for its colorful foliage, which has many uses both inside and outside. It makes an excellent container plant, with its trailing vines falling over the edges of pots in an effortless and attractive manner. It works well as an ornamental houseplant, as well as for yearlong ground coverage in outdoor flower beds. Being very resistant to drought conditions, this plant is popular in the South, where, among other things, it looks great in hanging baskets.
In some instances, lavender flowers can bloom on the vines, but they are generally considered uninteresting in comparison to the foliage of the sweet potato vines. Flowering is uncommon, happening in most instances on older varieties.
Sweet Potato Vine Overview
|Origin||Tropical America, Mexico|
|Scientific Name||Ipomoea batatas|
|Common Names||Sweet Potato Vine|
|Ideal Temperature||Above 70° F|
|Varieties||Many cultivars, including Blackie, Marguerite, Solarpower Red, Sweet Caroline, Tricolor, Illusion Midnight Lace, and Illusion Emerald Lace|
|Watering||Keep young plants in moist soil; mature plants can sustain dry soil between waterings|
|Pruning||Prune to prevent overgrowth when required|
|Pests||Beetles, caterpillars, whitefly, aphids, weevils|
Caring for Your Sweet Potato Vine
The sweet potato vine needs to be in a well-draining soil so that any excess water from rainfall or watering has the opportunity to drain away. This plant doesn't like sitting in wet soil, so if you have this as a houseplant make sure you remove any standing water from around the base after you water it. When in containers, whether inside or outside, you can fill the bottom of the pot with rocks or large pebbles to help with drainage and prevent the soil from becoming waterlogged.
As a houseplant, this plant will do best if you allow it to go dry in between waterings, but if left dry for too long, the leaves will wilt. Check the soil with your finger to ascertain how moist it is. If it feels damp to the touch, then wait a while before watering it. Outside, you will be at the mercy of the weather when it comes down to watering your plants. Ensure you plant the sweet potato vine in a well-draining soil so that it can cope through periods of heavy rain. If you live in a drier climate, water with a hose or watering can on a regular basis to ensure the plant gets enough moisture.
Mature sweet potato vines fare relatively well in drought conditions. If conditions become too dry, then the plant will sustain its leaves on water from its tuberous root. Unfortunately, the tubers on sweet potato vines do not tend to be very big, so this practice cannot be relied upon for more than a week. If the plant does not receive any external water and has to rely on root moisture, then the leaves will not look as healthy or be in as abundant as before, though it should recover well once the watering frequency is corrected.
Provided your sweet potato vine is mature and in good condition, then it should manage just fine if you fail to water it for a short time, though obviously will be at risk of dying if you neglect it for too long. Younger plants whose roots are not yet well established will need constant water to survive. They like to be in consistently moist soil, though you need to strike a good balance because overwatering will lead to root rot when the plant is in a container. For younger sweet potato vines planted in flower beds, you can help the plant retain moisture by layering mulch on top of the soil, while stays damp for longer than the soil itself.
This plant is a sun worshipper and thrives in bright direct sunlight. This isn't always possible though, and fortunately, the sweet potato vine will do just fine in a combination of full sun and partial shade. If used as a houseplant, try to home it on a windowsill that benefits from all-day sun.
This plant likes to be kept quite warm and can be kept outside all year round in climates that don't drop below 70° F. It will survive in climates where the nighttime temperature dips to 50° F at its coolest, though any colder than this and the plant will need to be brought inside until warmer temperatures return. If kept inside all year long as a houseplant, the sweet potato vine will be happy so long as it doesn't get too cold. Usual inside temperatures will be fine, but try to keep it away from cooler areas of the house.
This plant, as a native tropical plant, thrives in conditions of high humidity. Watering the soil regularly will help to create humidity around the plant. This plant will not fare well outside in locations that experience low humidity or strong winds. In dry air, the plant's leaves will quickly lose moisture through the stomata, and this will be further worsened by the fact that it enjoys full sun, which can increase the rate at which the leaves dry out. When this occurs, the plant will suffer from dehydration and become quite unhealthy, eventually dying off. Indoors, you can recreate the plant's native humidity by spraying it with a water mister. When planted in containers, be sure to grow your sweet potato vine alongside plants that have similar requirements, such as tomatoes. Otherwise, neighboring plants might suffer from the high humidity created for the sweet potato vine.
This plant can become quite unruly if left to its own devices and will benefit from an occasional pruning session. The vines can grow to 10 feet in length, so you may wish to continually cut back the plant to keep at to a size appropriate for the space you have it in. To trim specific areas, use a pair of shearing scissors and cut stems back to around a quarter inch from the node. This will encourage new growth. The sweet potato vine responds effectively to pruning, growing with some force in areas it has been cut back. If growth becomes too aggressive, prune more regularly to keep the plant in check. Frequent pruning will encourage the growth of new flowers.
Propagation can be achieved in two ways: from stem cuttings or directly from a sweet potato tuber.
To propagate from a stem cutting, you will need to cut a stem from a healthy sweet potato vine that has several leaf nodes on it. Remove the leaves on the lower half of the stem, which should be around six inches in total. Place the cutting into a glass of water, and roots should sprout within the space of a few days. This can effectively be done over winter because the cutting will happily live in the water until spring when it can be planted outside or in a container with soil.
To propagate from a sweet potato tuber, you can use an edible sweet potato where roots will emerge from the eyes on the tuber. Put it in a glass of water with the bottom two-thirds of the tuber submerged in the liquid, and from this, the vine will grow. Alternatively, you can put a sweet potato in a cold and dark place over winter, where it will begin to sprout. In early spring, you can chop up the potato into chunks, ensuring each chunk has one sprouting eye. Plant these directly into soil to grow new vines.
Illusion Emerald Lace
This variant of the sweet potato vine has been cultivated for its vibrant green foliage. The deep-cut leaves are splayed out in almost a star shape, creating a very visually attractive plant. Spreading 4 feet across and 10 inches in height, this plant is sizeable, creating a quite an impact.
The leaves of this plant have five points in the shape of a hand. The foliage is a very dark purple-black, looking quite striking when set amongst green plants. This variant grows vigorously and is best kept outside to allow full growth. In a hanging basket or container, it will need frequent pruning throughout the summer months, when it can grow several feet a week if the conditions are ideal.
Illusion Midnight Lace
This sweet potato vine variant can look quite spooky in its dark purple shade with almost spiky looking leaves. It has a compact trailing and mounding habit, growing to around 4 feet wide and 10 inches in height.
This is an especially popular variant due to its heart-shaped leaves and bold chartreuse foliage with a subtle golden hue. The colors will remain bright all year round, helping to bring a lightness to your garden that is generally only experienced in spring and summer.
This variant of the sweet potato vine comes in a selection of colors, including kiwi, lime, purple, and even jet black. The black variety features heart-shaped leaves, which make quite a statement in the black color. For a brighter look, the lime colored leaves give a vibrant tropical feel. The Sweet Caroline vine grows less aggressively than some of the other vine variants, making it ideally suited to planting in container pots. It usually grows to a more compact size than its other close relations, and therefore may be a good choice for anyone who isn't keen on tirelessly pruning back their plants.
Spreading to three feet, this vine is slightly more compact than others and features rusty bronze-colored foliage. Its leaves have dense coverage, so it looks fuller and lusher than some other vines. It won't get leggy or spindly, even in old age, and makes the perfect trailing plant for hanging baskets and containers.
This striking variant features variegated foliage in shades of green, white, and pink. The plant is more compact than other sweet potato vines, with small leaves in a pointed shape.
Many types of beetle are attracted to this plant, including the Golden Tortoise Beetle. This insect, although very attractive as insects go, can wreak havoc on your sweet potato vine. The beetles look like tiny drops of golden molten lava, with an almost iridescent quality. Though they are certainly interesting to look at, you will soon be sick of the sight of them when they start munching on the ornamental leaves of your sweet potato vine. A golden tortoise beetle infestation can completely destroy the look of your plant, leaving obvious holes all over the foliage.
Cucumber beetles are also a pest for sweet potato vines. These beetles have yellow bodies and are dotted in black spots of feature green stripes.
Flea beetles, which can be identified for their long hind legs and tiny size, also cause issues for the vines. The larvae of both the cucumber beetles and flea beetles chew tiny holes in the plant that will lead to disfigurement of the root.
To rid your plant of beetles, a pesticide such as pyrethrum, will control the problem. Alternatively, for a safer option, you can introduce a natural predator of the beetle, such as tachinid flies. Neem oil is also a natural yet effective way of dealing with beetles.
Silverleaf whitefly and aphids suck on the leaves and stems of the sweet potato vine, draining the plant of its nutrients. They gather in groups on the plants surface, where they excrete a sugary liquid after sucking the sap from the plant. The sugary liquid will soon seem to turn into a black powdery substance, which is actually mold developing on the plant. When this covers the leaves, it will create a barrier for photosynthesis, and the leaves of the plant will die as a result.
These types of pest can be controlled by lady beetles, which are the natural predator of whitefly and aphids, or you may wish to try to remove the insects by hand (Plant Village).
Several types of caterpillar can prove problematic for the sweet potato vine, including armyworms, cutworms, and leaf miners.
As the name suggests, leaf miners feed on the inside of the leaves where the soft tissue is. Leaf miners are a moth caterpillar, which is gray when they develop into a moth. The moth will lay white-green colored eggs onto the surface of the vine’s leaves, which then turn into brown pupae. The tiny pupae can sometimes be spotted on the underside of the leaves. Once transformed into a caterpillar, the leaf miner will be around a quarter of an inch in length. As it mines along the surface of the leaves looking for its next feeding spot, it will leave a silver trail which will soon turn brown. The marks left behind by the caterpillars will make the plant look unhealthy and unattractive, and the damage caused can also affect root growth.
Caterpillar populations can be controlled by natural predators, such as ants, but a severe infestation may require more direct treatment. Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria that can help to rid your sweet potato vine of caterpillars.
This incredibly destructive pest feeds on all parts of the sweet potato vine, but it is in the roots where it will cause the most damage. The larvae, which are white with brown heads, feed on the roots, creating tunnels through the root structures. In doing so, the plant’s health is compromised, and a stunted plant with wilted or dead leaves will be the end result.
We hope you’ve found this information on caring for sweet potato vine plants to be helpful. If so, or if you have any questions about cultivating sweet potato vine, please leave us a comment below. We also invite you to share this page with others and to browse our other growing articles for tips on other plants you may have or are interested in.