The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Taking the yuck out of yucca

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

On many occasion my mere mention of yucca plants elicits a melodramatic repetition of the name, as in "Yuck-ugh". Ok, I admit the green-leafed yucca is occasionally listed as a garden bully. It's propensity to grow too well and produce many side shoots to double its size every year certainly relegates it to garden thuggery status. However as I look at the colors of my winter landscape, yuccas are the few plants beyond brown. The newer variegated cultivars of yucca deserve a revised status beyond bullydom.

Forty some species of yucca are native to different parts of North America. Many are found in the southwestern U.S., in and out of landscapes. As members of the Agave family the spiny sword shaped leaves are a common characteristic. Yuccas appear more accustomed to deserts than decks, but some can be perfectly at home in our backyards.

The common garden yucca Adam's needle (Yucca filamentosa) is native to much of eastern and southeastern U.S. including Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The long greyish evergreen leaves are stiff and sharp pointed. Leaf margins possess long, curly threads leading to another common name of curly hair. Plants possess very short stems so the leaves appear as an explosion of daggers. Sound enticing? Actually the upright architectural form looks fabulous as a welcome escape from the rounded balls of many of our other landscape plants. However this does translate into a "PG 13" landscape, slight profanity if you happen to land on a yucca.

We may not have much respect for garden yuccas now, but they were once very useful plants. According to the USDA Plant Guide "the Catawba, Cherokee, Nanticoke and other Native American tribes used Adam's needle for a variety of purposes including food, medicine, cordage and even soap. The roots, which contain saponin, were prepared by boiling and pounding for use as soap. The green leaves are easily split into long strips that can be plied into cord. The leaves have long, very strong fibers, a type of sisal, which were twisted into strong thread used as cordage for binding and to construct baskets, fishing nets, fishing lines and clothing. The leaves of Yucca filamentosa contain the strongest fibers native to North America." So I guess if you are "blessed" with a green yucca, maybe it's time to explore its many uses.

Despite its practicality I have a hard time recommending the straight species of Yucca filamentosa due to its propensity to spread, unless it is planted in summer or winter containers. Ridding a yard of the green yucca requires lots of deep digging and the tenacity to dig for several years. However the newer cultivars with yellow striping in the leaves such as 'Color Guard' and 'Bright Edge' are not as prolific in the landscape and offer even more color in a summer and winter garden. Their upright sword shaped leaves offer great structure to a garden in all four seasons.

Summer or winter yuccas are tough plants. They easily survive the summer inferno zones, the areas between the sidewalk and street or the south side of the house. In addition yucca perseveres through winter cold and winter wildlife buffets since deer and rabbits prefer to munch on other plants. Wet soils are yucca's only enemy. As you wander winter landscapes, check out the variegated yuccas at our Idea Garden in Urbana, just south of the corner of Florida and Lincoln Avenues.

University of Illinois Extension invites you to Illinois First Detector Workshop focused on early detection of and responses to invasive pests in Illinois such as forest insects, boxwood blight, and newly found jumping worms. Wednesday, February 3, 2016 from 9:00am-4:00pm at UI Extension Auditorium, 801 North Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821 (217-333-7672) $40 Registration Fee covers instruction, lunch, and training materials. Please register

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