Across much of the Deep South, there’s a vigorous and attractive climbing vine called the “air potato.” Its Latin name is Dioscorea bulbifera. This basically pest-free plant has the strange habit of forming dangling bulbils along its vines. When fall comes and the days get shorter, the vines dry up and the bulbils, which look like little potatoes, fall to the ground for the winter. In spring, each one grows into a new plant.
By this manner, air potato plants spread happily over acres of woods, becoming the bane of native plant enthusiasts, forestry departments, and homeowners.
You see, the air potato isn’t originally from the US—it’s from Africa and Asia. And though some forms are edible and are a great staple, other forms are inedible, since they contain a toxic steroid that can mess with your reproductive system. Though I’ve done hours of research on them, I still haven’t come across a way to know which wild types are edible and which aren’t. This is unfortunate, since the plants are very prolific. Generally, the wild forms can be assumed to be poisonous.
To make things more confusing, Dioscorea bulbifera has a cousin, Dioscorea alata—also called an “air potato”—which is always edible.
That’s the plant we’ll consider today. The reason I started with D. bulbifera is to make sure you don’t randomly start digging roots in the wild and eating them. Unless you like sterility and vomiting, stay away from air potatoes unless you know for sure they’re an edible type.
Unlike D. bulbifera, D. alata—the “winged yam”—has dark and misshapen bulbils that look like grotesque charred animal organs. The “air potatoes” on D. bulbifera are pocked, light tan, and much rounder, with a look that’s reminiscent of little moons or asteroids.
Like its cousin D. bulbifera, the winged yam is also classified as an invasive species, at least in Florida. Though it’s not nearly as aggressive, someone decided to add it to the list years ago. This makes it hard to find for sale—though wild specimens can be obtained on occasion.
Here’s a video I did to help foragers distinguish between the edible D. alata and the generally inedible wild D. bulbifera:
Do you ever feel like there’s a conspiracy against us when it comes to growing staple foods and useful plants?
Along with opium poppies (which can be used safely to treat diarrhea, headaches, and toothaches); mesquite trees (which have excellent wood, nitrogen-fixing ability, and edible pods); hemp (which has medicinal, fiber, and biomass uses); and water spinach (which will produce lots of nutritious leaves in a tiny space), winged yam belongs on the list of exceptional species that are just not appreciated by The Powers That Be.
Look—homeowners probably won’t get in trouble for growing this thing, but you’re not allowed to sell or spread it around. Unlike, say, Cannabis sativa, it’s basically unrecognizable except to plant geeks. And it doesn’t really go as well with cheetos and scratchy old Bob Marley records.
Now, what’s so amazing about Dioscorea alata? Let’s take a look.
The How and Why of Growing Winged Yams
The winged yam is a perennial species of true yam (not to be confused with sweet potatoes) that makes huge, delicious roots with very little care from the gardener. Basically, you plant a bulbil in the fall, winter, or spring, then wait. In late spring, when the yam has decided it’s warm enough, a little vine will pop out of the ground and start looking for something to climb. That vine will grow rapidly and reach for the sky, whether in shade or sun. As the year progresses, the plant will gather plenty of energy from the sun and store it in a rapidly expanding tuber beneath the earth. As fall arrives, bulbils will form at various leaf nodes and dangle in the air as the vine yellows and dies back. At this point, the root can be dug—or it can be left in the ground for another year to continue growing in size. You can also grow winged yams by cutting up roots and planting them, rather like potatoes:
Why would you want to grow these puppies? How about this: The roots can hit 80 pounds or more.
Not only that—they taste good.
Beyond the size and flavor (which is comparable to a white potato), this is a “set and forget” crop. If you plant these in your garden, all you have to do is wait. It will grow in bad soil, beneath trees, in abandoned lots, along fences, without watering, etc.
This is where its “invasive” cred comes in. It lives and it makes plenty of food without any work on your part. It’s also unrecognizable as food to most people.
Yet overseas, this plant is literally a lifesaver in some communities.
Yes, D. alata can invade native ecosystems; however, what if we simply ate it instead of calling in guys with backpack sprayers full of RoundUp? I’ve done my fair share of harvesting them from the woods, and if you keep an eye on the plants you grow, you’ll easily be able to keep them from escaping. Even if they do escape, it’s not like the state is ever going to win this fight. D. alata has been kicking around here and there for almost a century. Having edible yams in the woods simply means there will be more wild food available during times of crisis or famine.
With its giant roots, simple care and growth requirements, and great taste, the winged yam is a perfect prepper plant … even if it’s not appreciated by your local agricultural extension.
What Do You Think?
What are your experiences with winged yams? Have you ever grown or eaten them? Share your stories in the comments below!
Psst! Our Lawyer Wants You to Read This Big, Bad Medical Disclaimer –> The contents of this article, made available via The Grow Network (TGN), are for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may be suffering from any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention. You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information provided by TGN. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk. And, of course, never eat a wild plant without first checking with a local expert.
David The Good is a Grow Network Change Maker, a gardening expert, and the author of five books you can find on Amazon: Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting, Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening, Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening, Create Your Own Florida Food Forest, and Push the Zone: The Good Guide to Growing Tropical Plants Beyond the Tropics. Find fresh gardening inspiration at his website TheSurvivalGardener.com and be sure to follow his popular YouTube channel.