The Yucca is a striking plant with a strong architectural structure which fits in comfortably with many contemporary landscapes. It easily conjures up a semi arid feeling, set among pebbles, yet some species will be just as much at home nestled amongst sub-tropical plants.
Yucca species are mostly from the North American south west, though some can be found as far north as Alberta in Canada and as far south as Guatemala, with one originating from the West Indies. It is from here that the name originates. The Carib name for Tapioca or Manioc (Manihot spp.) is Yuca but due to a mistake in early classification, the name was assigned to the Yucca we know today. The two plants are not related.
A relative of the Agave, there are more than 40 species of Yucca.
It is a perennial shrub with long, blade shaped leaves which grow in whorls at the end of a woody stem. The leaves of most species have a sharp terminal spine. Heights range from about 1 metre for the grass-like Y. glauca to 9 metre for the impressive Y. elephantipes.
Flowers of the Yucca are typified by a tall cream or white inflorescence in spring with fragrant blooms which open at night. These will only appear when the plant reaches 6-7 years old.
In its native habitat, the Yucca plant has developed an interesting relationship with the Yucca Moth. The moth specifically pollinates the Yucca flower in order to provide a food source for its larvae. Enough seeds remain uneaten for the plants to reproduce. Without the moth, the Yucca would not naturally produce seed and without the Yucca the moth would die out.
On the positive side for the home gardener, Yuccas are easy to propagate vegetatively. If the Yucca you wish to propagate has a trunk, take a cutting from the woody part of the stem (any length and with or without the crown)
and pop it into a well draining propagation mix. This can be done any time of the year in warmer regions and I have had a high success rate without the use of rooting hormone. Some species produce suckers which should be cut from the stem of the mother plant and planted out into potting mix.
Care should be taken in transplanting Yuccas. If you are planting one which has overgrown its pot, you should have no problems, but if you dig one out of the ground, get as large a root ball as possible. Damaged roots close to the base of the trunk may rot, leading to infection at this growing point and eventual death of the plant.
Ensure that Yuccas are planted into a well drained soil with plenty of bright light. The same goes for Yuccas grown indoors. If the light level is too low the plant will become limp and pallid looking. They are a drought hardy plant and can handle light frosts. What they don’t like is over watering and wet feet.
Most parts of the Yucca plant are edible and have been used by North American Indians to treat many medical conditions such as arthritis, skin conditions, chronic headache and high blood pressure. Some complications can occur if taken in the wrong doses. Please seek professional advice for preparations.
For a great character plant in the garden, I love St. Peters Palm or Yucca australis (meaning ‘southern’) from Mexico. It has the appearance of a shaggy creature from Where The Wild Things Are by retaining its dead leaves. Unfortunately to achieve this effect will take about 15 years.
P.S. Apologies for a mistake in my last article X is for Xanthostemon. My computer had the China Bear virus and instead of the common name Golden Penda, I ended up with Golden Panda. Cheers, Tohm.