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Back to Nature | Commentary by Mari Carbajal
| Thursday, Apr 28, 2016

maricarbajalDriving around Southern California, one can’t help but notice the grandeur of the majestic yucca blooming every spring – God’s candle, the Lord’s candle, chaparral yucca, Spanish bayonet or sword, Quixote yucca and many other names that I won’t go into here. The species local to Santa Clarita Valley including Agua Dulce and Acton – and most of Southern California – is yucca whipplei.

Yucca is considered a “survival plant.” Why? Because of all of the resources this plant is able to provide. People throughout history have taken advantage of the yucca’s many uses, and we continue to use it today.

For hundreds of years, American Indians have utilized the yucca for everything imaginable – food, cordage, building materials, making shoes and sandals, rope, nets, making baskets, and using the leaves for soap, shampoo and food.

yucca whippleiThe young flowers are edible but can be bitter if not washed several times before consumption. The fruits can be eaten raw, and the dried seeds can be roasted and ground into flour. Yucca root is eaten like potato but contains far more starch.

Note: It is unclear to me which species of yucca root is edible. I’ve heard that some species of yucca can be eaten and some can’t, so make sure to ask experts, or research the various yucca plant species before eating any of the plant’s parts.

Besides food, the leaves can be treated and used to make cordage. This is always a fun “campground” activity or a great lesson for scouts and children of any age.

yucca ropeFirst, cut some of the leaves from the plant’s base. Be careful not to stab yourself on the thorns that protrude from the end of the leaf. Remove the thorn at the tip of the leaf’s blade. Soak the leaves in water until they are soft enough to bend easily (about 10 to 15 minutes) – but don’t throw out the water.

Next, remove the soaked leaves and pound them with a rock to break apart the filaments. Once the filaments begin to tear apart, you will be able to tear them into strands easily. You can take three or more strands and braid them together. Once you’ve done this, you can combine several braided strands together or use them individually to make whatever you wish – cordage, jewelry, a basket, sandals, etc.

Yucca root

Yucca root

Place the strands in the sun to dry. Once they’re dry, the strands are nearly unbreakable. You will notice that the leftover water is rather soapy. The water can be used as soap for bathing or for shampoo. It makes your hair amazingly soft.

You can cut the thorn at the tip of a leaf blade and use it as needle for sewing. This technique has been used for hundreds of years to make clothing, shoes, baskets, patching up your brother, etc. It’s a very handy product when there’s no Walmart close by.

There is another plant very similar to yucca, but spelled “yuca.” This plant is cassava (manihot esculenta), which is completely different and unrelated to yucca.

Shown: Cassava (yuca) root, which looks almost identical to yucca root.

Shown: Cassava (yuca) root, which looks almost identical to yucca root.

In researching for this article, I found comments that the root of the cassava is edible, and others say it is not. However, cassava root is used to make tapioca.

The overall cassava plant looks completely different from yucca whipplei. Cassava is a staple throughout Africa, Asia, and some parts of South America. I even found a blog that warned the purchase of “yucca root” from grocery stores because the root they found was actually cassava and not yucca, and they warned that it couldn’t be eaten without making you very ill.

Then again, I saw a recipe online where a woman stated her grandmother used to make yucca root from either the yucca or cassava root. Confusing, to say the least. Possibly it’s the way it’s prepared or treated prior to cooking? I suggest researching closely before ingesting any yucca, yuca, cassava, or other tuberous root with which you are unfamiliar.

Yucca is unique. It has a classic symbiotic relationship that tops any other. It involves the yucca plant and the yucca moth, Tegeticulla yuccasella. The relationship between the two has existed for millions of years.

yucca mothNeither the plant nor the moth can live without the other. The moth’s larvae depend on the seeds of the yucca for nourishment, and the plant can be pollinated only by the yucca moth.

The male and female moths live underground in cocoons and converge on a yucca plant when they’re ready to mate. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she collects yucca pollen from one flower by packing the pollen under her head. She then flies to a different flower or yucca plant where she opens a hole in the ovary of the flower and lays her eggs inside. Scraping a small amount of pollen from her tentacles, she then goes to the stigma of the flower and packs the pollen into tiny depressions within the style. Before the female leaves the stock, she marks the flower with a pheromone, which tells subsequent females that they aren’t the first to lay eggs in that particular flower. The newcomer might leave fewer eggs or none at all. This helps to prevent too many eggs from hatching in each flower. The plant will abort the flower altogether if too many eggs are laid.

Larvae feed on the yucca seeds within the fruit and burrow out of the fruit after eating. The larvae then burrow into the ground to make their own cocoon, and the next spring replays the event all over again.

yucca leavesIt’s said there are many medical uses of yucca that are good for treating arthritis and joint pain, skin conditions, asthma, headaches and osteoarthritis. The extract from yucca has been used to treat migraines, colitis, ulcers, gout, bursitis, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and disorders of the kidney, liver and gallbladder. Researchers have discovered that a compound found in yucca extract inhibits the clumping of blood platelets, preventing blood clots.

Although the medicinal uses of yucca have been noted for hundreds of years, the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates do not recommend or endorse the use of any natural plant for medicinal purposes. Consult your doctor or other healthcare professional before attempting to use any natural plant for medicinal treatment or purposes.

As always, keep your eyes open for the unusual. You never know what you might find.

 

Mari Carbajal is a docent-naturalist at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Lisa Parrish says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve always been interested in wild crafting and hope that you research and publish more articles on indigenous plants.

  2. We have a good amount this year in AD!

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