By Jennifer Poindexter
Wild yam isn’t what you might think of when you envision a yam or sweet potato. This is a crop that isn’t edible.
It’s typically grown for its medicinal purposes. This plant contains beautiful green foliage and a curved root that slightly resembles the shape of traditional yams.
However, the coloring of the root looks more like a white potato. The outside skin is brown and the flesh is white.
Whether you’re taking a journey of growing your own medicines or are simply interested in growing a different plant around your home, you’ll need a solid foundation to build from.
Here’s what you should know to start your journey when growing wild yam:
What You’ll Learn:
- The distinguishing features and purposes of wild yam.
- Ideal growing conditions for wild yam and its native habitat.
- The planting process for wild yam from roots.
- Essential care guidelines for wild yam, including trellising, watering, and mulching.
- Common pests and diseases that affect wild yam and how to treat them.
- The harvesting procedure for wild yam and how to store the roots.
Growing Conditions for Wild Yam
Wild yam is native to the eastern portion of North America. This plant can be found growing in wooded areas from Florida all the way to Quebec.
It’s difficult to find in many places because the plant has been overused throughout the years. It’s no wonder, as it’s thought to help with various conditions.
Though, there’s little to no scientific proof that the plant treats ailments.
Wild yam is frequently called “colic root” as it was used in the 1800s as a way to treat colic in babies.
However, the plant is known for its harsh flavor, so it’s most commonly used in supplements or creams, rather than cooking, as most don’t enjoy the taste.
Should you choose to consume wild yam, you must be careful as too much of it (or if it isn’t prepared properly) could bring about toxic qualities. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, we’ll consider the plant inedible.
This vining plant is a hardy perennial in planting zones five through nine. It naturally grows up trees and can climb as high as ten feet.
Don’t let this deter you from growing this plant if you don’t have much room for its vining qualities. Wild yam grows well in the ground and in a container.
In fact, if you live in a planting zone outside of this plant’s hardiness area, you may wish to grow it in a container to make overwintering it indoors less of a chore.
Whether growing in a container or in an inground garden plot, ensure the space has soil that’s dense in nutrients and drains well.
It should also grow in a location with partial sunlight. By supplying these needs, you should be able to create an adequate growing location for your wild yam plants.
Planting Wild Yam
When growing wild yam plants, it’s best to start new plants from the roots of an established wild yam. Each root system produces roots that form eyes.
Dig up a portion of the roots from a mature plant and see how many eyes are in the portion you’ve harvested.
Divide this root into multiple sections but ensure each portion has an eye. Prepare the garden plot or container for planting.
This should include using well-draining soil and tilling the earth where you’re planting, if growing outdoors.
Dig a hole approximately two to three inches deep and plant the piece of root with an eye. Cover it and repeat the process every one to three feet until each portion is planted.
You should perform this task in the fall, if you live in an area where the plant is hardy. If not, start your plants indoors prior to the final spring frost.
Keep the soil evenly damp, whether your plants are started indoors or outdoors, until they’ve sprouted. You may continue planting wild yam roots outdoors until the ground freezes. They should reemerge the following spring.
If starting your wild yam plants indoors, be sure to keep the growing containers in a warm location with bright, indirect light.
It’s also wise to place plastic wrap over the container as this forms a greenhouse effect. This helps keep heat and moisture in around the plant.
You may also place your growing containers inside a tray without drainage holes. Pour water into the bottom of the tray and allow the soil to soak up moisture from beneath.
I like this method as it helps ensure I don’t overwater. As the soil seems thoroughly soaked, pour the excess water out of the tray, and repeat the process each day until all frost is over and the plants are strong enough to be moved outdoors.
These are the most common ways for starting wild yam plants around your home. Wild yam is considered endangered in the United States, so please don’t harvest from plants growing wild.
Instead, do your research and source bare roots responsibly. Utilize these steps to add this plant to your landscape or container garden.
Caring for Wild Yam
Caring for a wild yam plant is simple. This plant doesn’t need fertilizer as long as it’s grown in good quality soil.
It does need a trellis, water, and mulch. Since this is a vining plant, if you don’t want it taking over an area, train it to climb a designated space.
Next, it’s wise to water a wild yam plant deeply. This encourages a deeper root system, lightens the amount of work you must do, and also avoids overwatering your plants.
Apply more water to the plant at each watering session but water fewer days of the week. This allows the roots to be saturated at the time of watering.
As the days progress, and the plant needs more water, it’ll dig its roots deeper into the soil to retrieve it. This creates the deeper root system which traditionally coincides with a healthier plant.
You should check the soil prior to watering again. Insert your finger into the dirt next to the plant. When it’s dry to your first knuckle, it’s time to water the plant again.
If it’s still damp, hold off on watering for another day or two. Be sure to check the soil again before moving forward with watering.
Keep in mind, if you’re growing wild yam in a container, it may need water more frequently since container-grown plants have less soil to retain moisture.
The last thing you must do when caring for a wild yam plant is to apply a layer of mulch around its base.
This not only helps retain moisture in the soil around the plant, but it also serves as insulation for the plant over the winter months in the cooler hardiness zones.
Take the time to perform these few tasks as it could make all the difference in the harvest you receive and your overall experience of growing wild yam plants.
Garden Pests and Diseases Which Could Impact Wild Yam
The wild yam plant doesn’t have many enemies in nature, but there are a few things to remain aware of. The most common pest to impact this plant is the leaf beetle.
You may treat this problem by handpicking the pests or spraying the plant forcefully with soapy water. You can also apply an insecticide.
The most common disease to impact wild yam is brown spot. If you spot this discoloration on the leaves, you may remove the infected foliage. Destroy any parts removed to avoid the spread of this disease.
Should the issue seem to spread, treat the foliage with a fungicide. It’s wise to also plant in a location with ample drainage and partial sunlight to ensure the plant isn’t growing in cold, wet conditions as this only serves to further encourage fungal disease.
These issues could cause damage to your wild yam plants and even hinder their production. The faster you react, the less time the pests and diseases have to harm your plants. Keep this in the forefront of your mind, when watching your plants for potential threats.
How to Harvest Wild Yam
The last thing to discuss when growing a wild yam plant is how to harvest from it. When harvesting wild yam, wait until late summer or early fall when the plant has gone to seed.
This improves the potency of the root. You should harvest portions of larger, more mature plants. This leaves younger plants room to go to seed and produce more wild yam plants.
Dig up the plant, root system included, with a shovel or spade. When finished, rinse the roots under cold water and remove all debris from them.
Then cut the roots loose from the rest of the plant. Chop the roots into segments that are no more than three inches in length.
Place the chopped roots in a location with adequate airflow and sunlight to dry. It can take up to two weeks for the roots to be completely dried.
If you don’t have an area with both light and airflow, select a location with sheltered, bright light and then add a fan for airflow.
When the roots are fully dried, store them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry location until you’re ready to use.
You now have an idea of how to grow your own wild yam plant. By providing adequate care, you’re encouraging the plant to thrive.
In turn, this should create a better harvest. Whether you’re interested in growing a unique plant or wish to experiment with some of the plant’s potential benefits, utilize these tips to get you started.
- Wild yam is a non-edible plant grown primarily for medicinal purposes, boasting green foliage and a root that resembles traditional yams.
- It thrives in planting zones five through nine and prefers nutrient-rich, well-draining soil with partial sunlight.
- When planting, it’s best to use roots from an established plant and ensure each root portion has an “eye.”
- Care involves providing a trellis, deep watering, and mulching. No fertilizer is typically needed if grown in quality soil.
- Leaf beetles are the most common pests, and brown spot is a prevalent disease for wild yam.
- Harvesting should be done in late summer or early fall, focusing on mature plants. After harvesting, the roots should be cleaned, cut, dried, and stored.
Quick Reference Growing and Harvesting Chart for Wild Yam
|Wild Yam||Growing and Harvesting Details|
|Plant Type||Wild Yam (inedible, grown for medicinal purposes)|
|Native Region||Eastern North America (Florida to Quebec)|
|Planting Zones||Zones 5 through 9|
|Growth||Vining plant, can climb up to 10 feet|
|Soil||Nutrient-dense and well-draining|
|Propagation||From roots of an established wild yam|
|Planting Depth||2 to 3 inches|
|Spacing||1 to 3 feet apart|
|Planting Time||Fall (in hardiness zones) or start indoors before spring frost|
|Watering||Deep watering when soil is dry to the first knuckle|
|Fertilizer||Not necessary if grown in good quality soil|
|Support||Trellis, tomato cages, or stakes and twine|
|Mulching||Apply around base to retain moisture and insulate|
|Pests||Leaf beetle (treat with soapy water or insecticide)|
|Diseases||Brown spot (remove affected leaves and/or use fungicide)|
|Harvesting Time||Late summer or early fall when plant has gone to seed|
|Storage||Dried roots in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry place|