Monday, May 24, 2010

[Article] Yucca Schidigera & Joshua Tree

What's a Yucca Schidigera?

The Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), also known as the Spanish Dagger, is a flowering plant in the family Agavaceae. It is native to the Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert of southeastern California, Baja California, southern Nevada and western Arizona.

Yucca Schidigera with Scarlet Globemallow at the base

What does it look like?

The Mojave yucca is a small evergreen tree growing to 5 m tall, with a dense crown of spirally arranged bayonet-like leaves on top of a conspicuous basal trunk. The bark is gray-brown, being covered with brown dead leaves near the top, becoming irregularly rough and scaly-to-ridged closer to the ground. The leaves are 30-150 cm long and 4-11 cm broad at the base, concavo-convex, thick, very rigid, and yellow-green to blue-green in color.

The flowers are white, sometimes having a purple tinge, bell-shaped, 3-5 cm long (rarely to 7.5 cm), produced in a compact, bulbous cluster 60-120 cm tall at the top of the stem. The fruit is fleshy and green, maturing into a leathery, dark brown six-celled capsule 5-11.5 cm long and 3-4 cm broad in late summer.

This yucca typically grows on rocky desert slopes and Creosote desert flats between 300-1200 m altitude, rarely up to 2500 m. They thrive in full sun and in soil with excellent drainage. It also needs no summer water. It is related to the Banana yucca (Y. baccata), which occurs in the same general area; hybrids between the two are sometimes found.

What's it good for? And what part do I use?

The Yucca Schidigera is good for intestinal inflammation. Can help stimulate hair growth.

The fibers of the leaves were used by Native Americans to make rope, sandals, and cloth. The flowers and fruit could be eaten and the black seeds were ground into a flour. The roots were used to make soap. Some reports claim that Native Americans washed their hair with yucca to fight dandruff and hair loss. Among the other maladies this yucca has been used to treat are headaches, bleeding, gonorrhea, arthritis and rheumatism. Also used as a natural deodorizer. Used in pet deodorizers.

The aerial root is the part that can be used most effectively (the part from the ground to the green crown; underneath the dead growth and outer bark). You need to get down the brown bark and slice it really thin to dry out. (If it doesn't fully dry out it rapidly gets moldy.)

The root is rich in saponin, although the green part also has some saponin as well. The flowers are perfectly edible, but not very tasty. The aerial root is the most useful part of this plant.

Note: It's important to note that Yucca Brevifolia has the same properties; more commonly known as a Joshua Tree.

What is Saponin?

Saponins are a diverse class of natural surfactants, or detergents, found in many plants, but they are most abundant in the desert plants Yucca and Quillaja. Extracts from these plants are commonly used as foaming agents for beverages such as root beer.

When consumed in the diet, several classes of phytochemical saponins exhibit a wide spectrum of biological activity as antifungal and antibacterial agents. Saponin-rich herbs contribute to the lowering blood cholesterol and inhibition of cancer cell growth. Recent studies have suggested that the low serum cholesterol levels of Masai tribes in East Africa -- who consume a diet very high in animal products, cholesterol, and saturated fat -- may be due to the consumption of saponin-rich herbs. Saponins act by binding with bile acids and cholesterol, so it is thought that these chemicals potentially have the ability to "clean" or purge these fatty compounds from the body, lowering the blood cholesterol levels.

An interesting note about Yuccas.

Yucca plants grow, flower, and then eventually die, and when they do the carcass they leave behind is very absorbent and rich. It makes the soil a much more habitable place for other plants to flourish. Great compost for your garden!

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