Yuccas are as much a part of the Colorado landscape as red rocks and towering peaks. I admit, I didn’t like them at all when we arrived 25 years ago. Yuccas? Yuck! But in the intervening years, they’ve grown on me. I now acknowledge that yuccas have their place—as long as it isn’t in my yard.
I think my initial antipathy came from driving by a yard in a Colorado Springs neighborhood. The homeowners clearly didn’t want to deal with landscape maintenance; their front yard was mostly rocks. A scraggly Ponderosa sat to one side. The only other plants were a few yuccas stuck between some ugly boulders. It was probably intended to be a xeriscape. I thought it was a “zeroscape”!
Yuccas are all native to the western hemisphere, where their various species can be found in a variety of habitats ranging from deserts to grasslands, and sandy beaches to mountains. They’re adapted to thrive on little rainfall, no matter where they grow. Hardiness varies according to species. The yuccas that dot the high plains here in Colorado are tough, thriving even when temperatures soar to over 100° F, or plummet to -30° F. Unfortunately, some of the more attractive species, such as Yucca gloriosa, are killed at temperatures much below zero.
All yuccas have long, sword-like leaves rising from a central point in a rosette. Their sharp tips and razor edges give some species of yucca the common name of Spanish Dagger, or Spanish Bayonet. Let the gardener beware.
By the way, the deservedly popular plant we call Red Yucca (right) isn’t a true yucca at all, even though it’s quite similar. Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) has narrower, more flexible leaves, and flowers in shades of vibrant orange-red to soft coral. The blossoms attract hummingbirds. It’s hardy to USDA zone 5, and can be found growing in Denver, but it isn’t as reliable at higher elevations.
I understand why Coloradans plant yuccas. The only way to kill them is with kindness. Once they’re established, you don’t need to water them; they have a tap root that reaches China. They’re evergreen, even at high altitudes—one of the few larger plants (along with junipers and other conifers) to look alive in mid-winter. They don’t care about soil, as long as it’s well-drained. They’re more of less hail-proof, a major consideration in this part of the country. And some people even find them attractive, praising their showy white flowers and calling their pointy leaves “dramatic.” Okay, I agree that the flowers, which appear in June, are pretty.
They also have a fascinating way of being pollinated. Instead of bees, bats, or hummingbirds, yuccas are pollinated by moths in the family Prodoxidae. These yucca moths visit the flowers and lay an egg in each one. In the process, they move pollen from plant to plant, in much the same way as bees would. The resulting caterpillar feeds on some (not all) of the developing yucca seeds. Both the moths and the yuccas benefit, making this an example of mutualism. However, in some cases, the symbiotic relationship is one of parasitism—some yucca moth species manage to lay their eggs without pollinating the flowers. Sneaky of them.
And speaking of the flowers…
Our younger daughter was getting married. Not wanting to be pelted with rice or birdseed, she and her groom decided they’d prefer their guests to toss flower petals. As their special day approached, their florist collected the petals from any fading bouquets for them. However, the day before the wedding, the florist called in sick—and her uninformed employees trashed the bags of petals. Oh no!
All afternoon, our about-to-be son-in-law drove around town visiting every florist and begging, or even buying, discounted wilting bouquets. But they still didn’t have enough petals. Desperate, he waited until after dark, then headed for the campus of the nearby university—the school they had both graduated from the week before. As he inspected the campus flower beds, it turned out that the only flowers in bloom were the yuccas—so he carefully cut every stalk!
We spent the rest of the evening stripping petals from the yucca flowers. They were sticky with honeydew and covered with small bugs. We mixed them into the tubs of florist petals and piled them into the paper cones they’d made. The next morning, the happy newlyweds were showered with petals, bugs and all.
I guess that yuccas do have their uses.