By Julie Christensen
If you’re looking for a vigorous, fast-growing vine for trailing in pots or in beds, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) just might be the ticket. Sweet potato vines are tropical plants that thrive in rich, moist soil. They tolerate a variety of soil Ph levels and grow in both full sun and partial shade. Best of all, sweet potato vines produce large, exotic leaves that come in a variety of colors, from neon green to black to pink or purple.
Sweet potato vines are tropical plants that are evergreen in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 8 through 11, depending on variety. In cold climates, they shrivel up and turn mushy at the first hint of frost. Most northern gardeners grow them as annuals, although overwintering plants indoors is also an option for the ambitious gardener.
Propagating Sweet Potato Vine
To grow sweet potato vines, you have several options. The simplest, of course, is to buy nursery plants in the spring and plant them outdoors after the last frost.
You can also plant sweet potato vine from seed. Fill a seed-starting tray with a light, soil-less starting mix. Sprinkle the seeds over the tray, spacing them 3 inches apart and cover them with a light dusting of starting mix. Spray the mix with water from a spray bottle and cover the tray with plastic wrap. Store the tray in a warm place, watering it as needed to keep the starting mix evenly moist. Once the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic wrap and move the tray to a sunny window or place it under grow lights. Transplant the seedlings when they stand 4 inches high. Note: the seeds are highly toxic.
Sweet potato vines, as you might suspect, grow tuberous roots under the ground. You can use these roots to propagate more plants. Dig up the plant in the fall before the first frost. Brush any soil off the roots and place the roots in a warm, dry location for 2 weeks. This process removes moisture from the roots and dries the skin slightly. After 2 weeks, store the roots in straw or sawdust in a cool, dark location, such as a basement closet, over the winter. Plant the roots outside in the spring after the last expected frost. Keep the soil moist. New plants will emerge from the tuber. Cut the plants when they stand at least 4 inches high and plant them in moist, rich soil. They will grow roots and start to grow. Leave the tuber to grow more plants.
Another way to propagate sweet potato vines is through cuttings. Simply snip a few healthy pieces from the plant in the fall. The pieces should be at least 4 inches long. Remove the bottom leaves and place the cuttings in water. Store the cuttings in a sunny room but keep them away from cold windows, which will kill them. Change the water once per week. Transplant the cuttings outdoors in the spring.
Growing Sweet Potato Vine
Provided warmth and moisture, sweet potato vine is a low-maintenance, vigorous plant. In fact, the most common challenge gardeners experience with this plant is controlling its rampant growth. In containers, it spills over the sides, making a beautiful trailing plant, but it can overtake other plants growing in the container. Cut sweet potato vine back as needed to control its growth. To grow sweet potato vine in the ground, amend the soil with compost or manure to ensure good drainage. Plant the vines 1 foot apart in full sun or partial shade. You probably won’t need to provide additional fertilizer for sweet potato vines, unless growth slows and the leaves appear pale in color. Then offer an all-purpose fertilizer, according to package directions.
Sweet potato vine suffers few insect or disease pests, although it is susceptible to rust and wilt. Make sure the soil drains well and avoid getting the leaves wet. Remove any diseased portions and discard.
‘Margarita’ has chartreuse-green leaves that appear paler in shade. It grows 6 to 12 inches high and spreads 1 to 3 feet. ‘Margarita’ is among the most heat-tolerant of the sweet potato vines, but needs consistent moisture.
‘Blackie’ has large, heart-shaped leaves that come in purple to almost black. Grow ‘Blackie’ in full sun and provide consistently moist soil.
‘Pink Frost’ is an extraordinary plant. The leaves are variegated white and green and edged in pink. The plant is especially fast growing and spreads up to 6 feet in one season. It tolerates partial shade.
Common Questions and Answers
by Erin Marissa Russell
Can I eat sweet potato vines?
Yes, the leaves of your sweet potato vine are edible, but only if your plant is an edible and not an ornamental variety. Although the leaves of sweet potato vines are not poisonous to humans like they are to dogs and cats, consumption is not particularly enjoyable or recommended if your plant is an ornamental. The young leaves of edible varieties of sweet potato vine are a delicacy high in antioxidants, but ornamental varieties have been bred for their looks instead of for their taste. Even the tubers of ornamentals are smaller than edible potatoes, and they have a bitter flavor.
The leaves of edible sweet potato plants are best eaten raw when they’re young and fresh, though more mature leaves can be enjoyed if prepared properly. You can chop the tender young leaves and use them in salads. More developed leaves can be sauteed with garlic in olive oil or butter or used in a stir-fry. Truly mature leaves can be utilized wherever you’d normally use spinach—in dishes like palak paneer or cheesy creamed spinach.
To keep your plant healthy, only remove 20 or 30 percent of its leaves, and wait 80 days after planting to begin harvesting. Alternatively, you can do succession planting and start a few new plants once a week. Then you can harvest the whole vine, trimming back to just a few inches, once it has grown to three feet long.
Can I grow sweet potatoes on a trellis?
Yes, you can plant sweet potato vines using a trellis. Space plants two feet apart (instead of the three-foot spacing they require without trellis). Using trellis will make it easier for you to weed your garden as well as simplifying harvesting the greens, if you plan to eat them.
Can I plant store bought potatoes?
Store-bought potatoes have often been sprayed to prevent sprouting, so if you choose to plant an edible potato instead of opting for an ornamental sweet potato vine, choose organic potatoes to start with. Use toothpicks to balance the potato in a container of water with the pointy end down and the top third sticking out of the water. Keep it in a sunny windowsill or other bright spot, and refresh with clean water every few days. Within one to eight weeks, your potato will begin sprouting. For best results, use firm potatoes, and opt for ones without any mushy bad spots on them.
Can I root sweet potato vine?
Yes, sweet potato vines root easily from existing plants. You can break off a piece of sweet potato vine and root it in a container full of water (kept indoors in a sunny spot like a windowsill), or plant it directly in the soil.
Can you divide sweet potato vine?
Divide sweet potato vines in the spring when shoots are an inch or two tall. First dig up the tuber at the base of the vine and cut it into sections, making sure each has at least one eye (which are where the vines come from). Each section can be planted and will grow into a new sweet potato vine. Use clean tools to prevent spreading disease.
Can you eat potatoes from a sweet potato vine?
Yes, sweet potato vines grown from edible sweet potato varieties will produce edible sweet potatoes. To turn your vines into a crop of tasty tubers, plant them outside in May, and you can dig up the sweet potatoes from underground in late fall, when they’ll be ready to eat. Unfortunately, if your vine is from an ornamental sweet potato variety, it won’t make very tasty potatoes. However, the potatoes produced by an ornamental sweet potato vine are likely to be bitter or very bland, unlike the sweet potatoes we farm for food or pick up at the grocery store.
Can you grow a sweet potato vine from a sweet potato?
Yes, sweet potato vines can be grown from sweet potatoes. Place a sweet potato in a container full of water with the pointy end down. Use toothpicks stuck into the potato balanced on the rim of the container to keep the top third sticking up out of the water. Keep the container full of fresh, clean water, changing it every couple of days, and your sweet potato will begin to sprout vines in between one and eight weeks.
It’s best to use firm potatoes without mushy or bad spots that have never been refrigerated. Potatoes that are not organic will have been sprayed to prevent sprouting, so organic is best to use if possible. Especially large potatoes may need to be cut into pieces before you sprout them.
Do sweet potato vines bloom?
Yes, sweet potato vines do produce occasional flowers late in the season that resemble morning glories. The exact hue depends on the foliage color, but blossoms come in a range of shades from pink to lavender.
Do sweet potato vines climb?
You can encourage ornamental sweet potato vines to climb by planting them spaced two feet apart on a trellis. However, they also trail and do beautifully as a groundcover or when allowed to spill from window boxes, containers, and hanging baskets.
Do sweet potato vines produce sweet potatoes?
Yes, if your sweet potato vine is from an edible variety of sweet potato, it will produce edible potatoes if you plant it outdoors in May. By fall, you’ll be able to dig up the edible tuber. Vines that are ornamental varieties won’t produce tubers you’ll want to eat, though—the potatoes they make will be bitter or tasteless. Despite not being especially delicious, the potatoes an ornamental vine produces are entirely edible, however.
Do sweet potatoes grow along the vine?
Unlike cucumbers, melons, or tomatoes, which grow from the vine, sweet potatoes are a root vegetable, so the tubers grow underground. Ornamental sweet potato vines don’t make potatoes that taste very good (although the tubers an ornamental vine grows are completely edible), but ones grown from edible sweet potatoes will grow delicious potatoes underground that you can harvest in the fall if you plant them outside in May.
Does sweet potato vine come back every year?
Sweet potato vines are winter hardy up to USDA zone 8. Gardeners in other zones will need to help the vines survive through winter in colder climates. Some vines produce large tubers that can be dug up and stored in paper bags indoors until spring, such as the ornamental varieties “Margarita” and “Blackie.” If they’re grown in containers, you can simply bring the plants indoors during the cold season. Or they can be cut off, leaving just a few inches, and kept indoors in a container of water. Just keep the container in a bright location, like a sunny windowsill, and refresh the water every few days. Then transplant into the garden when things warm up in the spring.
Does sweet potato vine need a lot of water?
Yes, hydration is vital for healthy sweet potato vines, though they aren’t picky about soil and can even be grown without it in a container of water. Especially in the first 30 or 40 days after planting, it’s imperative that gardeners give sweet potato vines the right amount of water: at least an inch each week.
Does sweet potato vine need full sun?
Sweet potato vines crave sunshine and also perform well in especially hot climates. Give them as much sun as possible to help your sweet potato vine to flourish. That said, sweet potato vines can be grown in partial shade if full sun is not available. However, growing sweet potato vines in a shadier spot will produce duller foliage.
How cold can sweet potato vines tolerate?
Sweet potato vines are best suited for warm climates or growing indoors as a houseplant. Just a few days of temperatures near 40 degrees Fahrenheit is too chilly for sweet potato vines and can kill them. That’s why it’s important not to plant sweet potato vines outdoors until the soil is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
How do you prune sweet potato vine?
Left unchecked, sweet potato vines will grow long and leggy, so prune them to encourage bushier production or keep it within the bounds of your garden plot. Once plants are three to four inches tall, you can clip all the new growth and plant the cuttings elsewhere. This strategy allows you to both control the size of your plant and create new ones in the process. Cuttings can be planted directly in moist soil or rooted in water.
How do you start a sweet potato vine in water?
Insert a few toothpicks into the sweet potato, sticking out of the sides about a third of the way down its length. Place the sweet potato in a jar or glass full of water, using the toothpicks to keep it balanced with the top third coming out of the mouth of the container and the pointy end in the water. Place the container in a bright, sunny location, such as a windowsill. Refresh the water every few days, and your sweet potato vine will start to grow between one and eight weeks from planting.
For best results, start with a firm organic sweet potato that has never been refrigerated and does not have mushy or bad spots. Organic potatoes are more likely to grow vines because other potatoes sold to eat have been sprayed to prevent sprouting. You can cut large sweet potatoes into pieces before sprouting so they fit in your container.
How do you take care of a sweet potato vine?
Sweet potato vines are tolerant of a broad range of soil types, thriving in pH levels from 4.5 to 7.5. That said, they really flourish at a pH level of around 6. (Not sure of your soil’s pH level? Read about how to test soil pH level in this Gardening Channel article.) Any loamy soil type will suit a sweet potato vine, from clay loam to silty loam or sandy loam. Soils particularly heavy in clay should be amended with organic matter. (It’s easy to test your soil type at home if you don’t know it using the mason jar method.)
They also need plenty of water to thrive. For the first 30 or 40 days after they’re planted, provide sweet potato vines with an inch of water per week. Drooping foliage means the plants are thirsty and should be hydrated more heavily.
How do you winter a sweet potato vine?
You can winter sweet potato vines by bringing them indoors. If your sweet potato plants are in containers, simply transport the containers indoors to a sunny location. For sweet potato vines planted in the soil, one way is to break the vine off near the surface of the soil (making sure there are several leaf nodes). Strip the leaves from the bottom few inches of the vine, then place that end in a container of water and keep on a sunny windowsill or in another spot where it will get plenty of sunlight. Keep the water fresh by changing it every few days, and In spring, just remove the vine from the container and plant back in your garden. Some varieties produce large tubers that can be cleaned and kept in paper bags indoors until spring, when the weather is warm enough to transplant them into tthe garden.
How long does it take sweet potato vines to grow?
When growing vines from a sweet potato, it takes between one and eight weeks for the tuber to sprout new growth of vines. If you’re growing sweet potatoes to eat, it takes 100 to 140 days (depending on the variety of plant).
Is a sweet potato vine an annual or perennial?
Sweet potatoes are normally grown as an annual when they’re planted in the soil outdoors, but they can be kept as a perennial if you grow them indoors like a houseplant or overwinter an outdoor plant indoors. Keep the container in a sunny spot, like a windowsill, and you can even overwinter the vine just in water, without soil, as long as the water is changed out every few days. Sweet potato vines are also winter hardy for gardeners in zone 8 or farther south. Varieties that produce large tubers can be overwintered by digging up the tubers and storing them in paper bags indoors until spring.
Is ornamental sweet potato vine the same plant that makes edible sweet potatoes?
Yes and no. Both plants are varieties of Ipomoea batatas; the difference is which traits of the plant have been focused on as it’s been bred and cultivated through the years. Edible sweet potato varieties have been bred to produce delicious tubers and to yield a large harvest each year. Ornamental varieties have been bred with a focus on the vine and foliage, with little attention paid to the tubers underground. So while there are edible sweet potatoes growing underneath the ornamental sweet potato vine, those tubers are usually small in size and bitter or bland in flavor—and edible sweet potatoes do have a vine and leaves, but their foliage isn’t as fancy or attractive as that of the ornamental varieties.
Is sweet potato a creeper or a climber?
Ornamental sweet potato vines will climb if you plant them on a trellis (spaced two feet apart). They’re also prone to trailiing, though, and are pretty when planted in hanging baskets, window boxes, or at the edges of large containers. In garden beds, they function as a groundcover.
Is sweet potato vine drought tolerant?
The sweet potato vine needs plenty of water to really flourish, but established plants can tolerate drought because they keep a ration of water in storage roots. But especially within the first 30 to 40 days of planting, hydrate generously—one inch of water per week at minimum.
Is sweet potato vine invasive?
As a relative of the morning glory, most strains of sweet potato vine self-propagate and grow so abundantly that it is considered invasive, especially in warm climates. Bush varieties are not as productive and are recommended if spreading is a concern. Frost will kill the vines instantly, however. That means if it gets cold enough over the winter to freeze, the weather controls the spread of the vines naturally. In warmer locations, though, there’s nothing to prevent the sweet potato vine from growing prolifically if measures aren’t taken to control their expansion.
Is sweet potato vine poisonous to dogs or cats?
Yes, the sweet potato vine is poisonous to dogs and cats—and the tuber at its root is more harmful. Sweet potato vine poisoning results in gastric distress and effects similar to LSD ingestion. Both the plant and the sweet potatoes should be kept out of your pet’s reach. If your pet is displaying symptoms of poisoning, go to the veterinarian, and make sure to bring along part of the vine to help them make a quick diagnosis.
Symptoms of sweet potato vine poisoning include: blisters in the mouth and throat, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, dilated pupils, drooling or excessive salivation, drowsiness, hallucination, increased urination, lethargy, liver and kidney damage, loss of appetite, low blood pressure, nausea, numbness in the extremities, red skin or swelling, seizures, slow heart rate, and vomiting. Washing out your pet’s mouth before leaving for the veterinarian can help relieve the irritation and make them more comfortable. If the ingested sweet potato vine was moldy, severe respiratory problems can also occur.
It can be helpful to tell your veterinarian how much of the plant was ingested and how long ago ingestion occurred. They may perform blood or urine tests to determine how severe the poisoning is, induce vomiting with a hydrogen peroxide solution, or administer intravenous fluids to hydrate your pet. Especially severe cases may require surgical intervention.
Should I trim my sweet potato vine?
If your sweet potato vine is getting too long, you can trim it back and leave just a few inches to encourage it to fill out and grow more bushy. Bonus: The trimmed end of the vine can be planted right in moist soil or rooted in water if you like.
What is eating my sweet potato vine?
Suspects likely responsible for holes in sweet potato vine leaves include golden tortoise beetles, potato flea beetles, sweet potato loopers, and sweet potato whiteflies, or the black-and-rust-colored sweet potato weevil. Keep reading to learn to identify each insect and for remedies to fight them off.
If you see bugs that look like flecks of gold in the leaves of your plant, the golden tortoise beetle might be eating your sweet potato vine. It especially likes the “Margarita” variety. Neem oil is an effective remedy for tortoise beetles—dilute one teaspoon of neem oil and four or five drops of dish soap in a liter of warm water for a homemade spray.
Flea beetles are small black or tan solid-colored or spotted insects that look a lot like fleas, as well as jumping like fleas do. The round holes they make in young leaves leave them with a lacy appearance, and they spread bacterial diseases, too. You can make a spray to defeat them right in your kitchen with five cups of water, two cups of rubbing alcohol, and a tablespoon of liquid soap. Make sure the spray won’t stress your plants by spraying a test leaf and leaving the treatment on overnight.Sweet potato loopers are pale green caterpillars with a fine white horizontal line on their bodies that move like an inchworm. Loopers turn into grayish brown moths later in their life cycle. The sweet potato whitefly is a tiny white and yellow insect you should especially be suspicious of if sticky honeydew is left behind on leaves.Floating row covers can protect against loopers, or removing the caterpillars by hand and dropping into a bucket of soapy water is actually an effective strategy. There are also wasp species that parasitize loopers and whiteflies, so you might try growing flowering plants that attract these pollinator predators. Botanical Bt is an organic biological insecticide that also works against loopers and whiteflies.
Weevils feed on the underside of leaves and can also cause yellowing of vines, but sometimes they go unchecked until the sweet potatoes are harvested. Fight back against them with pheromone traps or the predatory nematodes Steinernema and Heterorhabditis, which are more effective than insecticides at taking weevils out.
What is the botanical name for sweet potato vine?
The botanical name for sweet potato vine is Ipomoea batatas.
What is the difference between potatoes from an edible sweet potato vine and an ornamental sweet potato vine?
The difference is all in the flavor of the potatoes, much like the difference in the foliage comes down to how attractive the leaves are. In short, edible varieties of sweet potato have been bred to produce large harvests of the flavorful sweet potatoes we like to eat. On the other hand, ornamental sweet potato vines have been bred to produce attractive foliage, with no attention paid to the tubers other than how well they support the vine. The result is that ornamental varieties usually have bitter or flavorless potatoes, which may be puny in size compared to the tubers produced by edible varieties. But just like you can sprout a vine from an edible sweet potato, you can dig up and eat the tubers of an ornamental sweet potato vine—you’re just likely to need lots of seasoning to make a palatable dish.
Why is my sweet potato vine dying?
Make sure your plants are getting enough water. For the first 30 to 40 days after they’re planted, sweet potato vines require at least an inch of water per week. A layer of mulch around the base of your sweet potato vines can help lock in moisture. Drooping foliage is a signal that your sweet potato vines need more moisture.
The pH level of your soil could be outside the range a sweet potato vine can tolerate (4.5 to 7.5, with an optimal level of 6). Or it could be short on potassium, which you can resolve by using a bagged kelp meal fertilizer or compost that includes banana peels. For a simpler way to add potassium, dust the surface of your soil with wood ash, but don’t go overboard—make sure you can still see your soil under the wood ash.
Will sweet potato vine survive winter?
Sweet potato vines are winter hardy as far north as zone 8. Frost will instantly kill sweet potato vines that are left in the ground for the winter, as will a few days at temperatures hovering near 40 degrees Fahrenheit. However, you can overwinter the plant indoors. It doesn’t even require potting soil to happily thrive through the winter on a sunny windowsill. Simply break the vine off at the vase and keep. Make sure to strip the leaves from the part of the vine that will be submerged in water, and replace the water in the container every few days. Come spring, you can transplant your vine back into the garden. Some varieties make large underground tubers, which you can clean off and keep in a paper bag indoors until transplanting in the spring.
Why are my sweet potato vines turning yellow?
The foliage on your sweet potato vine might turn yellow due to a fungal infection or nutrient deficiency. Fungal infections are the most common reason behind yellowing leaves, especially if the yellowing works up from the base of the plant. The culprit is usually verticillium or fusarium. Make sure to water from the base of the plant to prevent fungal diseases. This Gardening Channel article can help you address fungal infections in your garden. Yellowing due to nutrient deficiency most often points to a lack of nitrogen or magnesium. Add nitrogen with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and a good quality of balanced fertilizer should address magnesium needs.
Want to learn more about growing Sweet Potato Vines?
Learn about how Sweet Potato Vine makes a great container plant on YouTube.
The Farmer’s Almanac covers Flea Beetles
Extension.org covers Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine
Empress of Dirt covers How to Grow Sweet Potato Vine from Cuttings
Florida Today covers Sweet Potato Vines
Garden Design covers Growing Sweet Potato Vine
Gardening Channel covers Growing Potatoes from Store Bought Potatoes
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which include perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.