What is spikey, fibrous, and fantastic? Yucca plants! Originating in Mexico, yuccas have a long tradition as useful, attractive plants. Today, they are primarily grown as ornamental plants. They can be low-growing foliage plants, such as Adam’s Needle, or tall, treelike plants such as Joshua trees, yucca Filifera or yucca rostrata. All of them produce clusters of narrow leaves that resemble wide grass blades in appearance but are far tougher. The blades are all sharply pointed on the end and frequently have sharp edges.
Yucca in Medicine
Yucca plants have long been used in folk medicine but have only recently begun to be examined by the modern medical community. Traditionally, yucca root is used to relieve headaches and arthritis. But before you go dig up a root from your ornamental plant, take into consideration that there are more than 40 different kinds of yucca and not all of them are good for use as medicine.
More than that, some types of yucca roots are high in saponin, which is bitter and sometimes even toxic. While some yucca powders and extracts have been cleared for human use, much more study needs to be done.
Yucca as Food
First, when discussing yucca as food, make sure that you are not confusing it with yuca (one c, not two), which is another name for cassava. That can be pretty confusing. When in doubt, look for the scientific names such as yucca filimentosa, which is another name for Adam’s needle. Yucca Filifera, yucca rostrata, and yucca brevifolia are all tree yucca plants. Yucca brevifolia, or Joshua trees, are protected and cannot be collected without a permit.
The food parts of a yucca plant are usually the base of the leaves, the stems, the blossoms, and the fruit. Not all yucca plants are edible, however, and those that are might be approached with caution. Keep in mind that some of the natives where yucca plants grow naturally used the plant as laxative!
Yucca as Soap
Yucca elata, other wise known as soapweed or soap tree yucca, is the state flower for New Mexico, in the United States. It is an attractive yucca plant, the fronds making a sort of pompom shape on a short stem. It is a rich source of saponin, a bitter substance that foams when shaken up with water. Soapweed, a European plant, is also rich in saponins. Both have been used in cleaning and in making soap.
The foaming element of yucca is sometimes used commercially in making things foam up.
Yucca as Fiber
This might be one of the places where yucca really shines. Those long, slender sharp leaves can be cut from the parent plant, soaked in water, and pounded to separate out the tough fibers. These fibers have been used to make fabric, rope, sandals, baskets, and more. The fibers can be used in just about any way that any other sort of fiber that is spun or woven can be used.
Yucca as an Ornamental
Yucca plants are amazing as ornamentals. They are as close to a “plant it and forget it” plant as you are likely to find anywhere, although some specific types are hardier than others. They tolerate cold fairly well, growing well up into Arkansas and Missouri in the United States, and they can endure some wet weather. They really prefer a drier climate and a sandy, well-drained soil. They tolerate a moderate amount of salt, growing reasonably well in areas that were formerly ocean beds, as well as along coastal areas.
Yucca Filifera and yucca rostrata make good substitutes for water hungry palm trees in dry locations. They do need to be planted a reasonable distance from walkways and other high-traffic areas since they do have those sharp, pointed leaves.
Let’s Hear it for Yuccas
Down through the centuries, yucca plants have been used for food, medicine, shoes, clothing, ropes, rugs, baskets, and more. They make a lovely foliage plant, and when they put up those tall bloom spikes with the waxen, white flowers, they are a popular feasting place for both beast and humankind. Their roots have been used in medicine, although more testing needs to be done to prove or disprove efficacy, and they are an ingredient in soap and other cleaners. Therefore, it should be safe to say that Yucca plants are spikey, fibrous, and fantastic.