They stand erect and tall as guardian soldiers, swords at the ready, ever on duty in our cemeteries. The dagger like plants of Draceanaafromontana and then Yucca were planted at the headstone or in place of one at unmarked graves to ward off evil and keep restless spirits from wandering. They are profoundly significant as a symbol of eternity and mourning in the cultural beliefs of tropical Africa. The tradition continued throughout the Americas and the Caribbean settlements, the Yucca becoming our sentinel.
The name Yucca applies to more than 50 species that have mostly adapted to all types of terrain and share characteristics of appearance and chemistry. They are evergreens, drought tolerant, spread rapidly, fire adaptive, prefer full sun and are pollinated by small nocturnal moths, each species by a different genus of moth whose young feed upon the new seedlings. Our most common Yucca is the spineless Yucca elephantipes, so called as the base of the trunk resembles the foot of an elephant and the tree can grow up to 30 feet in height. However officially its binominal name is Yucca gigantea (1859 Lemaire) often referred to as Yucca guatemalensis, Pasqui in Belize, Itabo in Costa Rica, Izote in San Salvador, Spanish Bayonet and Ghosts of the Graveyard.
They look similar to the northern Yucca brevifolia, called the Joshua Tree first by the Mormon settlers after a biblical passage where Joshua reaches his hands to the heavens in prayer. Yuccas are seen as protectors of the earth and the spirit world. Indeed they are often planted to protect from erosion and also to mark boundaries. Yucca trees all contain saponinglycosides which are soap-like foaming agents that protect the plant against fungus and harmful microbes. This is poisonous to fish and was used by Native Americans to stun or kill the fish making them easy to gather. This practice is now outlawed but whilst harmful to fish the saponins enhance animal nutrition. The saponins of the Mojave Yucca are used commercially as flavour and for foaming carbonated drinks.
Saponins create suds and can be used for soap, shampoo and toothpaste. The tips of the leaves are not as sharp as agave but make efficient toothpicks and the leaf fibers, dental floss. The dagger-like leaves are pliable and contain stringy fibers. Leaves are woven into simple sandals, head-rings to balance pots and baskets and when pounded to extract the fibers you can make string, rope, brooms, brushes, pot scrubbers and cloth. During the first and second world wars when jute was in short supply the yucca fiber was used as a substitute to make burlap sacks and millions of tons met that need.
The Flor de Izote, the national flower of San Salvador, blooms in April, May and June. The blossoms can be eaten raw and make attractive decoration for cakes and salads. However they are best cooked or blanched for a few minutes and have a taste somewhat like a mixture of green beans and globe artichokes. Remove the hard centre, the pistil and stalks,which are all bitter. Wash the petals, boil for 5 minutes then set aside. Meanwhile chop and sauté onions and tomatoes, and finally stir in whisked eggs. There you have a favourite dish of Salvadorans. Other suggestions: for tempura Izote grab a small amount of chopped blanched petals, dip in tempura batter and drop into hot oil for 3 minutes; or chop and add to pancakes; or soup. To make blossom jam add blanched petals to lime and beetroot juices, then add sugar and cook over heat until jelly forms.
Nutritionally the petals are high in calcium, potassium, niacin, thiamine, ascorbic acid and vitamins A, B and C. Clinical evidence shows that Yucca may be effective in the treatment of arthritis, blood pressure and cholesterol. The leaves can be dried to make a healthy tea; for earache roast on a comal, cool and squeeze into the ear canal.
Please remember that Yucca is not Cassava Yuca (Manihotesculenta) whose root we use for flour, bread and pudding.
I could imagine the root of the Yucca gigantea is way too soapy for eating although it is said you can. If you do dig up the root to attempt any of its many uses, please plant back the leafy top … and so the new cycle begins.
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