Sweet Potato Vine: Grow and Care for Ipomoea Batatas

Have you ever looked at a sweet potato during dinner and wondered what it looks like in its plant form? Well, look no further, for here you’ll learn all about the sweet potato vine… the ornamental sweet potato vine, that is!

While it is the same species as its edible relative, ornamental sweet potato vines are bred for their incredible leaves rather than their tasty tubers. Purple vine plants are common, as are green, red, bronze, and even multicolored. With leaves that range from lacy to heart-shaped, and the occasional rare trumpet-shaped flower, these fast-growing ornamentals can provide a lush, eye-catching addition to your landscape.

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Sweet Potato Vine Overview

Common Name(s) Sweet Potato Vine, Camoten, ‘Uala, Tuberous Morning Glory
Scientific Name Ipomoea
Family Convolvulaceae
Origin Central and South America
Height Ground cover normally, but some climbing varieties can reach 7 feet
Light Full shade to full sun
Water Moderate
Temperature Warm weather preferred (annual in all zones, perennial in zones 9-11)
Humidity Tropical (high) humidity preferred, does not like desert dryness
Soil Moist, well-drained soil. Intolerant of highly alkaline soil.
Fertilizer None required, but may spur extra growth.
Propagation Cuttings
Pests Some pests, some diseases, herbicide sensitivity

Types of Sweet Potato Vine

Sweet potato vines are available in many countries around the world. Some of the most popular ornamental vine types are documented here, but there are many more, and new varieties are being developed regularly.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, ‘Blacky’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, ‘Blacky’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’, ‘Blacky’ source

These purple sweet potato vines are so dark that they are nearly black, hence their name. This vigorous and fast-growing cultivar is a popular variety which is known for its maple-like leaf shape. While the ornamental sweet potato plants don’t often flower, when Blackie does, it produces lavender or purple trumpet-like flowers.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline’ source

This variety is not just one coloration of plant, but includes five separate color options – yellowish green, red, purple, bronze, and light green varieties are available. Like Blackie, it has leaves which are reminiscent of maple leaves, and works extremely well as a ground cover.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Sweet Caroline Sweetheart’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweetheart’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Sweetheart’ source

Where the Sweet Caroline variety and the Sweetheart varieties diverge is in their leaf shape – the Sweetheart variety has distinctly heart-shaped leaves which make for a beautiful display. Available in red, light green, or purple, it’s rapidly becoming a favorite!

Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’, ‘Marguerite’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’, ‘Marguerite’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’, ‘Marguerite’ source

In full sun, the Margarita produces a bright chartreuse leaf with a hint of yellow, but if grown in the shade, it is deeper green in hue. It has a slight heart shape to its leaf structure, and tends to mound before spreading. It can be trained to a trellis, and can reach heights of 6-9 feet once established.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Tricolor’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Tricolor’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Tricolor’ source

This variety is truly named – its tricolored leaves are green with streaks of pink and white, giving it a distinct and unusual look when compared to other sweet potato vines. It tends to be a little less tolerant of cooler temperatures, and needs protection if the temperature drops too low. This makes a good container plant – while it’s still a quick grower, it’s not as fast as other cultivars, and it is gorgeous when trailing from a hanging basket.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Desana’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Desana’
Ipomoea batatas ‘Desana’ source

The Desana series of sweet potato vines tends to spread to become about four feet wide, and like the Sweet Carolines, it comes in multiple colors. Presently, ruddy bronze and lime green varieties are available.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Illusion’

Ipomoea batatas ‘Illusion'
Ipomoea batatas ‘Illusion’ source

With names like ‘Emerald Lace’, ‘Garnet Lace’, and ‘Midnight Lace’, the Illusion cultivar is a popular strain. Smaller growing and a bit less vigorous than other varietals, these sweet potato vines are described as having a thread-leaf foliage and are more mounding than other types. They spread about 3 feet.

Ipomoea batatas ‘SolarPower’ and ‘SolarTower’

The black version of the SolarPower is a purple sweet potato vine, and is deep purplish-black in hue. A rich lime green variant is available, as is a rusty bronze. SolarPower is one of the best performers in hot environments, growing to an average height of one foot and spreading about three feet wide. Where the SolarPower tends to mound and stay smaller, the related cultivar known as SolarTower lives up to its name. Well suited to trellis or arbor training, it can easily grow to a height of seven feet in a season, and is available in lime and black varieties.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Floramia Rosso’

This unusual ornamental sweet potato vine is known for its heart-shaped leaves which have shades of rose, brown, and bronze. It spreads to 4 feet or more.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Ragtime’

With unique almost-lacy leaves, this purple sweet potato vine is quite striking. It does quite well in the heat of the summer, and spreads about 3 feet.

Ipomoea batatas ‘Sidekick’

These cultivars introduced in 2009 are more mounding than spreading, and are available in two shades. The lime green tends to be lighter in color than Margarita, and the black is a deep purple sweet vine plant.

Planting Sweet Potato Vine

It’s actually quite easy to plant sweet potato vines. Select a well-draining soil and place it at the same depth that your potato vine seedling was at. It will take care of the hard work for you!

When to Plant Sweet Potato Vine

Most of the time, the sweet potato plant is planted in the spring. However, depending on your growing zone, it can be planted at other times of year. The one season in which it’s generally not advisable to plant sweet potato vines is the winter. As a tropical plant, it prefers warmer temperatures.

Where to Plant Sweet Potato Vine

There’s multiple ways to use sweet potato vine in your landscape! Sweet potato plants can provide a beautiful low ground cover in planters that will trail out over the edge. For a similar trailing effect, you can plant your sweet potato vines in pots or hanging baskets. It can have the tendency to crowd other plants it’s planted with. To prevent this, you can trim your vines at any time to keep them from choking out the neighbors.

The varieties that climb are rapidly growing popularity in use along fences, over arbors, and on trellises. They do require some support to get them started, but once they’ve filled out, you can have a leavy cover over your backyard patio or a fence coated with vibrantly-colored leaves.

People have started using sweet potato vine as an alternative to traditional lawns, since it spreads enough that it’s easy to turn it into a great ground cover. However, the large leaves are not as comfortable on bare feet, so it’s best to do this treatment in areas where children aren’t likely to play.

Caring For Sweet Potato Vine

For the most part, your sweet potato vines are independent and will take care of themselves, but here’s some helpful hints for best results.

Sun

While full sun is ideal, sweet potato vines accept partial to full shade as well. Their leaves may be differently colored in full shade conditions than they would be in full sun. However, in very hot climates, they can experience sunburn in extremely high temperatures (110+ degrees), so in the height of summer, it’s wise to provide a bit of shade cover for your plants.

Soil

Well-draining, moist soil is perfect for the sweet potato plant. If the ground is soggy for too long, its root system can develop rot, which will kill it. This applies to container plantings and in-ground plantings.

If your soil is highly alkaline (above 8.0 pH), you may wish to add an acid-forming fertilizer to bring the alkalinity down. Otherwise, fertilizing is really not necessary provided that your soil is well-balanced. You can fertilize on occasion to spur rapid growth, but otherwise it’s not necessary.

Water

Moderate watering is best. You want to keep the soil moist, but not wet or soggy.

Pruning

Sweet potato vines spread quite rapidly, so regular pruning is required. Pruning can be done at any time of year. It’s most needed during the spring and summer months when the weather is warm and the plants are growing fast.

If you are trying to train your vines to fork out and create a thicker ground cover or to promote a mounding pattern, try to trim just above a place where there’s a pair of leaves, as it will encourage the vine to split in two at the leaf buds.

Propagation

The easiest way to propagate the sweet potato plant is through cuttings. Take cuttings from the main vine that are at least four inches long. Make sure that you trim the vine at a leaf node. Remove most of the leaves, leaving only a few at the vine tip, and place your cutting into a glass of water. While you can directly put it into potting soil, it roots more quickly in water and you can see the root development. Place the cutting in a warm and bright place out of direct sunlight. Once it’s gotten a good root mass, transplant into soil.

If you’ve seen children’s science experiments with a potato suspended on toothpicks over a bowl of water, you’ve seen an easy way to produce sprouts for cuttings – place enough water in a bowl so that it just touches the bottom of the tuber, and then wait. It will put down roots and will push up sprouts. When the vines are at least 4-5 inches long, use them for cuttings.

You can also store your sweet potatoes in a box of sand or peat moss over the winter, and in the spring, they may start sprouting on their own. If they do, some have reported success with cutting sprouted slips from the tuber and planting those. Just be aware that sweet potato slips have a slightly larger chance of developing rot issues than starting with a fresh cutting.

Ornamental sweet potato vines don’t produce many flowers, which means they often don’t produce seeds. Many ornamentals are also sterile and only really viable to produce from cuttings. While you may be able to coax your plant into producing sweet potato vine seeds, they aren’t guaranteed to be good, so it’s best to propagate in other ways. Happily, a small sweet potato cutting can live indoors with a grow light or in a sunny window during cold months, so you can grow this plant inside in the winter.

Pests and Diseases

Pests

The most destructive pest is the sweetpotato weevil, which targets the root system of the plant rather than the foliage. Similarly, wireworms, whitefringed beetle grubs, and white grubs can pose a major issue to the root structure.

Above ground, the flea beetle and cucumber beetle can eat portions of the foliage, but that’s of less concern as the plant is so quick to grow. The larvae of those two types of beetles could become a problem if they’re laid in the soil near your plant, so watch for changes in your plant which might indicate root attack. Whiteflies, thrips, and aphids have also been reported to attack the foliage.

In most of the above cases, insecticides are known to help. Spreading beneficial nematodes around your garden is also a reliable measure to combat grub and larvae development. However, the best way to avoid these pests is to never get them in the first place. In the case of the sweetpotato weevil, for instance, you should be cautious with your root stock and make sure to get it from a reliable source so that your roots do not come already-infested. If you are unsure, definitely do not place any of the root stock in the ground directly. Instead, take cuttings from a sprouted root and transplant them to avoid spreading sweetpotato weevil in your garden.

Finally, in Australia, a surprising pest is the bush turkey. Reputedly, bush turkeys will scratch deeply around the vines while searching for grubs. If they reach a sweet potato tuber, they will happily eat that as well. So if you’re in an area where turkeys are common, or perhaps even chickens or other ground-scratching birds, keep an eye on your sweet potato vines to make sure you don’t have an avian rampage in progress!

Diseases

Sweet potatoes are known to be sensitive to rot issues, including root rot, stem rot, storage rot, and soft rot. The best prevention for these is to make sure the soil is well-drained and that the surface of the soil does not puddle. Some mottle and mosaic viruses are also typical, as are a few varieties of leaf spot.

Be cautious with herbicides near your sweet potato vines. Ornamental sweet potato vines are subject to amino acid (ALS) inhibitor herbicide injury. Herbicides that contain Imidazolinones, Sulfonylureas, and Triazolopyrimidine sulfonanilides can cause stunting in plants, leaf yellowing, and can result in slow plant death. It’s better to avoid using weedkillers near your sweet potato vines just to be safe.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are ornamental sweet potatoes edible?

A: Yes…if you don’t mind an awful-tasting sweet potato. Commercial varieties have been developed to form sweet, delicious tubers. Ornamental varieties don’t focus on tuber production, but instead on the foliage. Because of this, most ornamental sweet potato vines produce tubers that are purely starch with no sugar development. If you need it to survive, it is edible, but it’s certainly no replacement for what you buy at the supermarket! Similarly, while the leaves of commercial sweet potatoes are edible in salads and for other cooking uses while they’re young and tender, the ornamental varieties aren’t as tasty. They don’t have as many natural sugars in them, and can be bitter.

Q: Are there any other uses for sweet potato vine?

A: In South America, the juice of red sweet potatoes was used as a dye when mixed with lime juice. In Hawaii, where the plant is called ‘Uala, it’s used medicinally, and at least one variety was used as a fish bait. In Peru, Moche ceramics often have sweet potato tuber paste worked into the clay for color. Purple sweet potato juice has long been used for food coloring. In many cultures, all parts of the plant (leaves, stems, and roots) were used for animal fodder. And finally, researchers are beginning to investigate using sweet potato varieties to produce biofuel.

Q: How do you store sweet potato vine tubers?

A: Dust any loose soil off of the tubers. Take a sturdy cardboard box and fill it with peat moss, vermiculite, or sand, and gently press the tubers down into it. Take care to make sure they aren’t touching each other and that they’re thoroughly covered. Store the box in a cool, dark, and dry location where the tubers can’t freeze. In the spring, watch for the tubers to sprout, and transplant the sprouts. You can also try cutting slips from the tuber, each with a sprout, and replanting those.

So, are you interested in this beautiful trailing vine yet? It might not be the tastiest treat, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes! With a myriad of colors and leaf shapes, the sweet potato vine may be your best bet for a lush landscape or a perfectly-planted hanging garden.

Further Reading

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – For regional continental data – https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ipba2

National Tropical Botanical Garden – http://ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=6530

Purdue University Horticultural – https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Ipomoea_batatas.html

New Orleans Times-Picayune – http://www.nola.com/homegarden/index.ssf/2012/05/ornamental_sweet_potato_vine_i.html

Arizona State University – http://www.public.asu.edu/~camartin/plants/Plant%20html%20files/ipomoeabatatas.html

University of Illinois Extension – http://extension.illinois.edu/hortanswers/plantdetail.cfm?PlantID=527&PlantTypeID=5

Alabama Cooperative Extension System – http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1104/ANR-1104.pdf

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