By: Justin Butts
Yuccas are called Spanish daggers for the hard, sharp leaves that fan out from the base like a cluster of long knives. While these bayonet-like leaves can indeed wound a careless passerby, the yucca is one of the most useful plants in the desert.
Our Native American forebears relied heavily upon yuccas for survival. Yuccas possess an extraordinary range of uses – and not just for desert survivalists, but for our modern society as well. Yucca is found in soaps, shampoos, medicines, and even in ICEEs!
The array of cream-colored flowers suspended above the daggers is called the panicle. The white flowers decorating the panicle are an edible delicacy, and the green fruit is edible, too. The stems and leaves of yucca plants can be split into strands to make cordage. Native tribes wove intricate, sturdy baskets from these cords, utilized the fibers from the stem as tinder to start fires, and even used the roots of yucca plants as shampoo. The saponins in yucca root are a natural detergent; the roots lather generously when mixed with water.
Yuccas make stunning accent features in any tasteful landscape. They are durable, drought-tolerant, edible, cleansing, medicinal, and beautiful. Yuccas truly are a treasure chest in the desert.
Plant yucca (Spanish dagger) at 6’ to 8’ spacing in full sun, far from paths or where children play. Height to 10’. The dagger leaves are dangerously hard and sharp and could poke out the eye of a distracted child. Use any well-drained soil; mulch with rocks. Once established, water with rain. Soft yucca (Adam’s Needle) has much softer leaves, so is safer around kids. Space at 3’ to 4’; mature height of 8’; it’s less dramatic than Spanish dagger.
Harvest flowers when they newly emerge; old flowers turn bitter. Petal, pistil, and stamen parts are edible, not the green stem. Fresh petals have exotic, tinny flavor; add to salads. For a phenomenal side dish, separate petals and pistil/stamen; sauté pistil/stamen with onions in olive oil, then add petals until done. Add yucca flowers to any stir-fry, soup, or stew – they’re popular in authentic Mexican cuisine. The green fruit is also edible, best roasted over a fire.
“The first time I tried Yucca flower was at Native Dave’s compound in Aransas Pass; he just pulled one off the plant and said, ‘eat this.’ What a flavor: crunchy, sweet, with a hint of artichoke. Stick with the pedals only, and add liberally to salads and as a garnish.”
– David Ness, Executive Director, Grow Local South Texas
To catch fish, Native Americans would dam up a small stream and lather yucca roots into the pool. The roots foamed in the water and confused the fish, causing them to float to the surface where they could be easily grabbed. This foaming attribute is why yucca is a key ingredient in old-fashioned, all-natural root beer. In fact, yucca extract is the foaming agent in ICEEs that causes the frozen liquid to expand in the cup!