The Amazing Yucca

Among the multitude of notable and noticeable plants of the Great Plains, one stands out by virtue not only of its height of 2 to 3 feet, but also because of its striking spikes, studded with cream-colored to green petals, and adorned with reddish sepals. Soapweed Yucca (Yucca glauca) is one of a number of yucca species, belonging to the agave subfamily. It blooms mostly in June and I was pleased to happen across it at various favorite hiking destinations in and around Colorado Springs upon our return from Germany.

Unter der Vielzahl an bemerkenswerten und beachtlichen Pflanzen der nordamerikanischen Great Plains sticht eine nicht nur wegen ihrer Höhe von bis zu einem Meter hervor, sondern auch wegen ihrer auffälligen, mit cremefarbenen bis grünen Blüten- und rötlichen Kelchblättern ausgestatteten Rispen. Die sogenannte blaugrüne Palmlilie ist eine von mehreren Yucca Arten und gehört zu der Unterfamilie der Agaven. Sie blüht vorwiegend im Juni und ich war sehr froh, ihr nach unserer Rückkehr aus Deutschland an Lieblingsplätzen in und um Colorado Springs zu begegnen.

Besides their eye-catching appearance, the lance-shaped leaves, which happen to be green even in the depth of winter, will quickly remind the unwary passerby why yuccas have been called Spanish bayonets. This is likely not a problem for Yucca Moths, the plants’ predominant (if not exclusive) pollinators. In return for propagating pollen, they get to deposit their eggs, and the hatched larvae feed on seeds inside the pod, before eating their way out of the fruit. As the insects are nocturnal, one has to make a special effort to see them.

Neben ihrem auffälligen Aussehen erinnern ihre lanzettförmigen Blätter, die übrigens auch im tiefsten Winter grün sind, den unachtsamen Passanten daran, warum die Yuccas auch spanische Bajonetts genannt werden. Das ist wahrscheinlich kein Problem für die Yuccamotten, die Hauptbestäuber der Pflanze. Im Gegenzug legen sie ihre Eier in die Blüten, und die geschlüpften Larven futtern später die Samen in der Schote, bevor sie sich durch die Frucht fressen. Da die Insekten nachtaktiv sind, bedarf es besonderer Planung, um sie zu Gesicht zu bekommen.

In addition to the yucca’s beauty, it provided native peoples with many uses. The edible bell-like flowers and plump pods supplemented their diet; its fibrous leaves were turned into mats, footwear, baskets, and ropes; the leaf tips could be employed as paintbrushes when frayed, or as a sewing needles when intact. The roots, rich in saponin, were mashed and worked into a soapy lather, and cleansed animal wool and human hair alike.

Zusätzlich zu der erlesenen Schönheit der Yucca bot sie den Indianern vielseitige Anwendungen. Die glockenförmigen Blüten und plumpen Schoten sind eßbar und ergänzten die Nahrung. Ihre Blätter enthalten kräftige Fasern und wurden zu Matten, Fußbekleidung, Körben und Seilen verarbeitet. Die Blattspitzen fungierten im zerfaserten Zustand als Pinsel, und im intakten als Nähnadeln. Die Wurzeln, die reichlich Saponin enthalten, wurden zerstampft und der resultierende Seifenschaum säuberte tierische Felle und menschliche Haare gleichermaßen.

It should come as no surprise then, that the yucca has been described as a “grocery store.” Ever since I learned of and about this remarkable plant, I cannot view it with anything other than admiration.

Es dürfte also keine wirkliche Überraschung sein, daß Yuccas als „Lebensmittelgeschäft“ tituliert wurden. Seit ich mir dieser außergewöhnlichen Pflanze bewußt wurde, kann ich sie mit nichts anderem als Bewunderung betrachten.

43 thoughts on “The Amazing Yucca

  1. Fascinating plant Tanja.. we inherited a yucca in the first garden we had and I quickly learned to give the leaves a wide berth! We have a native plant here in NZ with similarly wicked leaves that’s commonly referred to as “speargrass” or “wild spaniard”. I was amazed at the myriad of uses for the yucca! Great post thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Liz. Interesting that your “wicked” plant is also associated with Spain. I wonder about the story behind the names. I thought that maybe the Spaniard first invented bayonets, but that does not seem to be the case.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Tanja and Liz,

        Ha, my parents also have yuccas in their paddock – primarily because they are one of the only plants that their alpacas wont eat or sit on! 😛

        I also did a quick search on our New Zealand native speargrass/Spaniard. I didn’t realise how many different species we had… Forty, to be exact! You can see them here: http://www.nzflora.info/factsheet/Taxon/Aciphylla.html There are also many common names: Karamea; Kueo; Kurikuri; Kuweo; Spaniard; Speargrass; Taramea

        The most common species is Aciphylla squarrosa (http://www.terrain.net.nz/friends-of-te-henui-group/new-plant-page/aciphylla-squarrosa-common-speargrass.html).

        As to why we often call it a prickly Spaniard or wild Spaniard or spiny Spaniard etc., I’m not sure anyone knows! I found the following article where the author is asking the same question. Here’s a quote:

        “What did the Spanish do to deserve the plant’s common name? The only reference I can find suggests it is “jocular”, although the Reverend William Colenso, writing in a newspaper in 1894, calls the name “objectionable” and preferring the Maori name, taramea (rough, spiny thing), or its botanical name. His tale of trying to find a way through speargrass and the injuries it wrought is worth reading, although his reference to “wild Irishman” is misleading as that is another spiny native plant (matagouri or Discaria toumatou).

        In a paper on ‘popular plant names’ of New Zealand presented at a scientific congress in 1921, Johannes Andersen said that Spaniard was a “fantastical” name and that he hadn’t been able to trace a source for it.”

        https://gardendrum.com/2013/07/23/spiny-spaniards-in-new-zealand/

        Perhaps we’ll never know. 🙂

        -Emma

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a young boy, somehow my mother managed to find and grow a yucca – in Pennsylvania! By no means its native habitat, the poor plant never did flower. It wasn’t until I drove across the country later that I saw the amazing plant you describe first across California hills and then all across the Southwest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That IS far from the plant’s native habitat! Too bad it never flowered, but understandable. Many people grow them in their yards in the SW, and even though I haven’t so far, I would like to give it a try. I plan to transplant one from the many prairie areas that will be developed into residential areas.
      I am glad you like them, too.

      Like

  3. What a fascinating botanical discovery you have uncovered here. A grocery store indeed! The native peoples of America (and by that I mean NOT the US but north and south) are a resourceful bunch. It does not surprise me that they figured out ways to use every part of a modest yucca plant for everyday living. It’s a shame their sustainable and permaculture ways were replaced with something, uh, less than that.

    I believe bats are also nocturnal pollinators of the yucca. I recall seeing video footage of this somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A few of these grow along the shore at Illinois Beach State Park. Authors seem to differ on whether it is native to my area, and after reading how important it was to native Americans, I’m wondering whether they might have carried some pods here to plant.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting plants, in addition to being beautiful! Years ago, a previous house purchase included a yard full of all kinds of flowering plants that I enjoyed tending to, including two yuccas. I loved those yuccas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for you, Donna. You are a few steps ahead of me. While I get to see these beauties frequently during my hikes, we have never had one growing in the yard (yet). I plan to introduce xeriscaping little by little, and yuccas would definitely be included in my dream garden.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Das ist wirklich eine rundum spannende Pflanze. Vielen Dank für diesen interessanten Bericht! Sowas ist doch toll, wo man jeden Zipfel eines Gewächses gebrauchen oder essen kann. Ich hätte nie gedacht, daß man überhaupt etwas von dieser Pflanze essen kann. Sie sieht nicht gerade zum “Anbeißen” aus 😉 So kann man sich täuschen. Ich bin mir nicht sicher, aber ich glaube, sie steht unten in Nachbars Garten. Das wäre ja zu witzig. Muß ich mir morgen mal näher ansehen. Jedenfalls werde ich mich jetzt auch immer über sie freuen, wenn ich sie sehe und dabei an dich denken 🙂 LG, Almuth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ja, diese Pflanze ist etwas ganz Besonderes. Es gibt sie inzahlreichen Variationen, und es würde mich nicht erstaunen, wenn Du eine davon in der Nachbarschaft hättest.
      Dankeschön für Deinen netten Kommentar.
      Herzlichst,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.