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April 03, 2007
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DESERT BLOOM: Rediscovering Yucca

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Now that I'm getting out into the countryside again, after what's felt like a very long winter, I'm rediscovering some of my favorite plants. Yucca - it is without a doubt one of the most dramatic families you can install in any xeric landscape. Further south people have their Saguaros, but yuccas are a real symbol of our part of the desert southwest.

These are the kinds of the plants that sometimes get confused with cacti, - not that it's really any wonder. Yuccas have thorns at the end of their sword-like leaves, and these can do some damage. If you don't handle them carefully, they'll hurt. But they're not cactus, not even closely related. In fact, they're more akin to grass, or palms, than to cactus. Don't you just love botany?

Of course there are quite a few different yuccas, and there're some plants that are commonly called yucca, but aren't members of the same genus. The one that comes to my mind is red yucca, which is installed so widely around here - slender leaves, not too treacherous, with terrific red flowers on tall stalks. Hummingbirds go wild for them. Since we use them so much, I'm happy to report that they are American natives, but they're from Texas.

There are true yuccas that've evolved here. We have some that you can readily find out in our desert.

One of the most dramatic yuccas you can see is the Joshua tree. It really looks like a tree, when it gets old enough to produce branches. This is the biggest member of the group. If it's lucky, it can grow to about 30 feet tall, although the US Forest Service states up to 70 feet - very rare. The Audubon society claims that the trunks can be up to a yard across.

Joshua's Latin name is Yucca brevifolia, which means it has short leaves, and they are, relative to its yucca cousins, but these short leaves can be eight inches long.

In the spring, when the plant flowers, the blossoms are all bunched together at the top of the branches, looking like slightly pointy white caps. The name 'Joshua' comes from the European settlers who thought these plants looked like they were praying with their arms extended. Makes sense, since the settlers were probably praying for water.

The Mojave yucca is related, and it grows in the same general environment as the Joshua, but if you think of the Joshua as a tree with a single trunk, you might think of the Mojave as squat shrub that can have multiple trunks clustered together. Not that it's a small plant; under ideal conditions, it'll get to 16 feet tall and the trunks, up to a foot wide. The leaves are generally about a foot and a half long, but they can get twice that.

The flowers appear on tall stalks that are thickly covered with creamy white blossoms; they can have purple tinges at the base, too. This is also a great co-evolution story; it's pollinated only by a particular group of moths. In return for the favor, the moth larvae eat some of the seeds.

As the foliage dies, it stays attached to the trunk, forming a kind of sheath. When a Mojave yucca has only one trunk, with the dead leaves hanging down over it, I think the plant looks a little like Cousin It from the Addams family.

The shortest of our yuccas is the banana yucca. The leaves range from two and a half to three feet long. This plant usually gets no more than five feet tall, but of course there are much larger and much smaller ones.

Its name comes from the fruit, which resembles a small banana; apparently it tastes more like sweet potato, though.

The leaves of both the banana and the Mojave yucca can get shredded into coarse hairs along the edges. Native Americans used those fibers for all sorts of things; ropes, weaving. That's in addition to the edible parts of the plants.

Other common names for these plants also come from their leaves. Spanish dagger, Spanish bayonet - you know that they are not meant to be warm and fuzzy.

Given that they're so well defended, it might be a good general principle to 'look but don't touch', and not just because they can hurt. These are legally protected plants - tempting as it may be, you can't just go out and harvest one from the desert. The state has its own language, and it protects certain wild plants as "cactus, yucca, or Christmas tree". I don't know exactly what that means, but I'm glad we're trying to keep them around. These are tough plants, surviving a tough climate. Don't they just symbolize the Mojave?

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