Living on a small ranch east of Tombstone, Marcy J. Miller has the ideal location for writing about desert life and Arizona history.
It's Not a Cactus.
Visitors to my corner of the state, southeastern Arizona near the Mexican border, often have misconceptions about the plants here. For example, they expect to see saguaro cactus everywhere (and so, so many western films and even documentaries often contribute to this image). For the record, there aren't naturally-growing saguaro cactus within 30 miles of Tombstone, but you'll find plenty of old movies with Wyatt Earp riding against a saguaro-dotted skyline. Another misconception? That just about everything with thorns here is a cactus. Yucca, like ocotillo, are a shrub, but not a cactus. Yucca are succulents, but they are not cactus. Yucca do have stabby parts, but they don't break off easily into your legs like the spines on a true cactus like a cholla, prickly pear, or barrel cactus. Still, don't hug them. That'll leave a mark.
It's a Member of the Asparagus Family.
This is my favorite yucca trivia: Yucca plants are members of the asparagus family, asparagaceae. It seems so unlikely that these spiky, huge, exotic-looking plants have anything in common with the frilly, user-friendly garden asparagus. That is, until you take a close look at the fresh, new stalks as they shoot up in the spring and summer. Then the similarity is undeniable. Take a look at the photo above and you can easily see the resemblance.
Yucca do bear a close resemblance to agave plants and are, in fact, a member of the agavoideae subfamily of asparagaceae. As you might expect from such a strange and wonderful family, they share other unexpected cousins, from bluebells to spider plants to the ubiquitous sansevieria house plant, more commonly known as the handsome, yellow-accented Snake Plant.
Yucca isn't Yuca.
Oh, the difference a single "c" makes! Don't confuse "yucca" with "yuca." The yuca plant, cassava, that you may see in the produce aisle or on the ingredient list for pricey-but-delicious snack chips, is not related to our desert yucca. Yucca roots aren't palatable; yuca root, on the other hand, is considered a root vegetable, similar to a potato in use, and jam-packed with nutrition. The yucca root is not a tuber! It's an easy mistake to make on paper, but not when you're actually digging the yucca root. Midway through the sweat, blood, and tears involved (unless you're using a backhoe) you'll inevitably realize you're not digging a simple potato-like root vegetable.
The Blossoms are Edible.
Fry them, sauté them, make a hash of them, or add them to an omelet: you can use yucca blossoms for a lovely, tasty addition to the dinner table. The internet abounds with recipes for the attractive blossom, and ethnic street markets feature them during the season. If you're not bold enough to cook them up, you can safely add them as a garnish to a dinner plate or cocktail. They'll definitely outshine that sprig of parsley for visual interest.
The Fiber is Used to Make Cords, Rope, and Baskets
You may already know that sisal, that wonderful multi-purpose cord used on cat trees, is made from agave fibers. Like its agave cousin, the yucca plant, too, produces useful natural fibers that can be crafted into cords. After harvesting and processing the fibers to remove the gummy substance (a soaking procedure called "retting"), the dried fibers can be hand-twisted into cords. The indigenous people of the southwest relied on the tough, durable fibers for this and for making stunning coiled baskets. For basket-weaving, the fibers need not be soaked (retted) but can be used green; they dry into an attractive light-green shade. White yucca, highly prized among the native people, dry into an ivory shade that makes a beautiful contrast to the darker green yucca fibers or darker-still devil's claw.
It Doesn't Die After Producing Stalks and Blossoms.
Unlike its cousin, the Century Plant, the yucca produces stalks more than once and isn't such a drama queen by producing one stalk-of-a-lifetime followed by crashing plant death. You can safely get attached to your pet yucca. It'll outlive that hamster, goldfish, and bunny, too.
The Stalks are Useful, Too.
The relatively straight, strong, lightweight wood of the dried yucca stalks was decidedly useful to the native dwellers of the desert southwest. Suitable for making shady ramadas or dogcart poles, ranchers still employ the shafts today to add tension to wire fencing or decorate a gate. I rely on them to provide shade for my poultry, goats, and even my cats' outdoor play enclosure. I wire the dried stalks onto the mesh of the animal habitats and appreciate the rustic beauty of them as well as the way they allow air to flow through.
I've also used the stalks for decorative projects, from rustic US flags to an accent piece on the front of my peacock / garden structure. They serve as roosts in my chicken coops, a ladder for the peacocks to climb, and a decorative front for a stock-tank water lily garden. They're a pleasure to work with; they don't splinter, they don't have thorns, and they're so lightweight that gathering them is easy work.
It's Widely-Used to Manufacture a Horse Nutraceutical.
Yucca schidigera is a key component of a vast array of horse supplements, trusted as a joint supplement. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, it has become a staple for performance horses and older horses. It's often coupled with devil claw, another interesting plant that grows alongside the yucca in the desert.
Yucca can benefit your own horses!
The Flower is New Mexico's State Flower.
We southwesterners cherish our native plants, and tough, spiny plants with beautiful blooms are among our favorites. My own state of Arizona chose the saguaro cactus blossom as our state flower; our neighbors in New Mexico opted for the yucca flower. Fun fact: Arizona has a wonderful population of yucca varieties, but New Mexico doesn't have any native saguaro. We win, New Mexico!
It Relies on a Very Special Moth for Survival.
One specific moth is responsible for pollinating the yucca, and only the yucca supports that particular moth. Not surprisingly, the moth is called the yucca moth. It's a plain little moth that matches the creamy color of the yucca blossom. A picky feeder, it won't eat anything but yucca nectar. In a way, it's the koala of the moth world.
It Can Be Made into Soap and Shampoo.
Those of us who make handmade soap are familiar with the word "saponin," plant-derived glucosides that makes foamy lather when added to water. "Saponin" is related to the word "saponify" which means to turn fat or oil into soap. Yucca contains saponins and, with minimal preparation, the root can be used to make a shampoo or body wash. Hence, the variety of yucca called "Soaptree Yucca." Known botanically as Yucca elata, it was used by indigenous people for cleansing. Basically, the root is pulverized or chopped, dried, and re-hydrated. Note that the Soaptree Yucca is a protected native plant in Arizona. Before harvesting any desert plant, review the legalities involved, including trespassing considerations, protected species, and whether you're on public lands.
Learn More with This Excellent Guide
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Marcy J. Miller