Lessons Learned from an Heirloom Sweet Potato

Cluster of Red Wine Velvet Sweet potatoes

Crops can teach us many lessons if we are observant and thoughtful in growing them. The Red Wine Velvet sweet potato Has taught me a lot over the years.

There are many things we can learn from the crops we grow.

It was the fall of 1984, as a young seed saver, I went exploring in the Warsaw (Indiana) Farmers’ Market. Seated at one of the tables was an older gentleman with boxes of two really different looking sweet potatoes. One was pure white and the other was beet colored.  I had never seen anything other than a copper-colored sweet potato so I asked, and he explained that the white was Southern Queen and that the red was called Red Wine Velvet. He had brought them with him from Georgia 30 years earlier. I purchased some of each and Jerreth and I enjoyed some for supper that night. I also saved roots in order to grow more. In this encounter I started to learn some important lessons The first was:

Special Crops are often right under our nose.

No one was making a fuss over these varieties. Red Wine Velvet was virtually unknown, yet we found it to be superb and began a long term relationship with the variety. Red Wine Velvet is extra moist. Its orange flesh, when baked, often forms a thin layer of caramel, right under the skin. This, of course, made us inclined to eat them skin and all! Red Wine Velvet is the only sweet potato variety I know that is noticeably moister than varieties one finds in the grocery store.

Did you know that Homesteading Edu has an entire course on Growing Sweet Potatoes?

Another lesson which we’ve learned is that…

Popular Opinion, when it exists, can be flawed.

Freshly dug sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes on top of row
Red Wine Velvet tends to produce well.

Within a couple of years we offered starts of Red Wine Velvet through The Seed Savers Exchange. It did get spread around and preserved that way, but I remember how, early on, two members complained about its flavor. They probably hadn’t given it enough time to cure. At any rate, it took years for the variety to gain popularity, in part, because of the negative publicity it had received. Meanwhile, we carried this one with us, growing it in several States and in Central Mexico. It became a family favorite. It is, in fact, really good! Which brings me to the third lesson to learn from this variety:

“Obscure” doesn’t necessarily equate with “inferior.”

Neither does “popular” necessarily equate to “superior quality.” Over the years Red Wine Velvet developed a following. The Seed Savers Exchange and  Sandhill Preservation Center helped greatly, by faithfully offering the variety. It eventually gained enough of a following that I consider it not to be endangered. It helped that William Woys Weaver, a gourmet cook, and gardener mentioned it as his favorite orange-fleshed variety.  After that I found myself swamped with requests when I sold slips in the spring. A member of the Seed Savers Exchange made a statement in one of their Yearbooks, something along the line of “If Red Wine Velvet produces better than Beauregard and tastes better, why is Beauregard the standard for sweet potatoes?” This tickled my funny bone!

But remember, there are other obscure varieties out there which also deserve more attention, and are superior in their own unique way.

Duck Creek Farms also carries many rare varieties of sweet potatoes.

Finally, I’d like to share one last lesson which Red Wine Velvet has helped me to learn:

Varieties can be fragile

I’ve had communication with one or two old-timers who claim that they knew of this variety. Yet it took decades to encounter these people, and their comments were anything but comprehensive. I’m sure it was popular at some point, in some locale. It’s too good not to have been. Yet, Red Wine Velvet came close to falling into oblivion.

Sweet potato vine with flowers, sweet potato flowers
Red Wine Velvet has regular, heart-shaped leaves and pretty little flowers.

In recent years I obtained an Oklahoma nursery license and began to sell sweet potato slips in the spring. I’ve accumulated about 12 varieties of sweet potatoes with various different colors of skin and flesh, as well as different flavors and textures. Though different, some of these rare varieties are truly superb, I hate to praise one variety, for fear of causing another to be neglected! Just as Red Wine Velvet nearly disappeared, this very variety could eclipse another, putting it in danger of extinction. So, when you grow sweet potatoes, consider trying some of the lesser-known cultivars. Give them a few years to get to know them, Don’t just grow what everyone else is growing!

Related article: The Pain & Pleasure of Sweet Potatoes

Have you found a neglected garden variety? We’d love to hear about it!


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