Yuccas - March 22, 2000
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
It's time to extol the virtues of another botanical icon of the southwest: not the saguaro, but the yucca. There are more than 40 species of yucca and all are new world natives. Several species are native to the southwestern United States. These range in size and shape from the multi-trunked Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) with large, tall, branching stems (to 30 feet) and short leaves to the more compact yuccas that form basal clumps (Y. harrimaniae).
Yuccas have been (and occasionally, still are) harvested for food (flowers and fruits) fiber (leaves) and soap (roots). Sandals and mats made from yucca leaves by the Sinagua culture can be seen in many local archaeological displays. In times of drought on the range, yucca has been used as an emergency ration for livestock. Here, the stems were chopped and mixed with cottonseed meal to make a nutritious, palatable feed. Today, the roots are harvested for use in natural arthritis and rheumatism medicines.
Yuccas produce showy, creamy white flower spikes between March and May. All southwestern yucca species are pollinated by various species of small moths of the genus Tegeticula. When the yucca is in flower, male and female moths emerge and mate. The female moth collects pollen with her specialized mouthparts. She flies to another flower, lays her eggs in the flower ovary, and then climbs to the stigma and deposits the pollen. Yucca moth larvae hatch and feed on the maturing seeds. The larvae kill some seeds, but not all. Mature larvae drop to the ground, form cocoons, and pupate until the next flowering cycle. This symbiotic relationship facilitates reproductive success for both yucca and yucca Moth.
Yuccas are both interesting and attractive when used in landscapes. They are very drought tolerant, long-lived, and come in several shapes and sizes. In the Verde Valley, there are at least two native varieties that are easily distinguished from each other. These are the Banana yucca (Y. baccata) with 1 1/2 to 2 inch wide leaves and Narrowleaf yucca (Y. angustissima) with 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide leaves. While these species are available from plant salvage operators and nurseries, other species are also available and well suited for planting in our area.
Before planting yuccas in landscapes, consider the size of the mature plant and amount of pedestrian traffic that will be in the area. Yuccas have sharp spines at the ends of the leaves that can easily pierce the skin and cause painful wounds. Of course, this can be used to advantage in landscapes by preventing access to private areas or discouraging illegal entry.
Larger yuccas should be used as accent plants and smaller types work well in combination with cactus and succulents. All species listed below are adapted to our local climate, are highly drought tolerant, flower in spring, and prefer sandy, well drained soil. Yuccas should never be grown in poorly drained, saturated soil.
Narrowleaf yucca (Y. angustissima) grows 4 feet high by 1.5 feet wide and produces 1.5 foot flower spikes.
Banana yucca (Y. baccata) grows 3 feet high by 3 feet wide and produces 2 foot flower spikes.
Joshua Tree (Y. brevifolia) grows 4 feet high by 1.5 feet wide and produces 1.5 foot flower spikes.
Soaptree yucca (Y. elata) grows 4 feet high by 1.5 feet wide and produces 3-4 foot flower spikes.
Mohave yucca (Y. schidigera) grows 4 feet high by 1.5 feet wide and produces 2 foot flower spikes.
This is not an exhaustive list, but you may be able to find some of these at local nurseries. Many are being propagated from seed by southwest growers.
For more information on drought tolerant landscape plants, please consult the Yavapai County Xeriscape Plant List on our web site: http://ag.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/xeriscape/
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Last Updated: March 15, 2001
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