Sometimes one letter can make a world of difference. Take the Yucca plant (Yucca filamentosa) for example. It is a common landscape plant for dry areas. You see it a lot in old cemeteries. Some confuse it with the yuca, a cultivated cassava root found in grocery stores.
So what’s the problem? Yuca root is a major staple in tropical diets. Raw, it contains cyanide compounds. Don’t consume raw yuca root. When cooked it is used to make one of my favorite desserts, tapioca pudding. Some people like the roots cut in chips and fried. Others like them steamed, boiled or baked. Don’t plan on growing any around here as yuca is strictly a tropical plant.
Yucca is a relative of the agave plant used to make tequila. Roots have bitter chemicals called saponins in them. They are poisonous but make a good soap. Don’t dig them out of your landscaping and think they are the same thing. Prolonged cooking reduces toxic properties, but doesn’t increase palatability enough for table use. There are about 40 species of these tough sharp-leaved plants, but none have edible roots. They aren’t even remotely related to what you see in the store.
Above ground parts of the yucca plants have numerous uses. Flowers are edible but benefit from cooking. Leaves can be pounded and the fibers used to make rope. The sweet fruits are edible, but they have very strong laxative qualities.
Yuccas are great for landscaping in areas where water shortage is common. They are also superb where deer are a problem. Pets rarely tear them up either as leaves are usually tipped with sharp spines. They also require practically no maintenance, which is probably why we still see remnants from abandoned cemeteries over a hundred years old.
Plants produce large sprays of sword-shaped leaves that radiate from the central stem. Some stay low to the ground and others get quite tall with upright heavy stems. Leaves are usually bright green as few diseases affect these tough plants except on wet soils.
Yuccas have fragrant blooms in spring and early summer. The flower cluster is usually large. Many are more than three feet long and nearly as wide. Individual flowers are cream colored and about two inches long. Shaped something like tulips, they have six petals that face downward. Plants can grow quite well in shade but they require full sun to bloom.
Yucca extracts are part of many holistic medicines to treat a variety of ailments. Joint inflammation is probably the most common use. Some preparations claim to be effective for treating migraine headaches, colitis, ulcers, gout, and hypertension. Other sources suggest yucca preparations are effective for preventing of blood clots and for liver, kidney and gallbladder problems.
These extracts are derived from root tissue, so I would suggest caution. Overuse of saponins (chemicals largely responsible for the positive results) isn’t healthy. Always check with your health professional before using these formulations and don’t try to make them yourself. Also, when trying anything new, check your spelling.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.