Sweetpotato Origin and History
Archaeological evidence shows that sweetpotato are native to South America and have been cultivated there for over 5000 years. In fact, fossilised sweetpotato have been found in the Andes region and have been dated between 8,000 and 10,000 years old.
Incan and Mayan civilisations are known to have grown several varieties: some grown for food and others grown to extract colouring materials for artists. They are also known to have been cultivated in Polynesia as early as 1200 A.D. and were a principle food source of the Maoris in New Zealand by the time of Captain Cook's arrival in 1769.
Although the sweetpotato is native to South America, it's spread to other parts of the world including the Caribbean was rapid although exactly how they spread is still an issue causing much debate among geneticists and archaeologists.
Many Europeans feel the sweetpotato is a relatively new import to Europe, but the evidence is that Columbus introduced them to Europe from the West Indies in the 1400's, and they were cultivated in Spain as early as 1500 A.D. Henry VIII (of lots of wives fame) is said to have been extremely fond of them, having received some as part of Catherine of Aragon's dowry. It is also said that he'd set an ongoing competition for any gardener in England who could grow them successfully.
In the 18th century, sweetpotato were included in many European agricultural documents and were described as a versatile crop, which could be prepared in numerous ways and fed to both humans and animals. From around the 1740's the term sweetpotato began to be used by American colonists to distinguish it from the white (Irish) potato. Sweetpotato seem to have dropped from favour for quite some time, certainly in the UK at least, but they are now a common sight in most supermarkets and greengrocers.
Though orange-fleshed varieties are the most common today, the white fleshed types were once considered the finest.