Monday, May 28, 2012

Yucca--Native Superstore

Native Superstore and Tenuous Miracle

Native to the Great Plains, Yucca, or soapweed, grows from Mexico to Canada. Often used as an ornamental planting in xeriscapes, this spiky plant punctuates prairie pastures, hillsides, and blowouts. Because western Kansans see yucca so frequently, they do not give much thought to this miraculous plant that was a superstore to many Indian tribes.

Its nickname soapweed describes one of its main uses. Indians such as the Lakota and Blackfeet used its sudsy roots to create a hair rinse that killed vermin and prevented hair loss. Kiowa Indians claimed a yucca solution cured a variety of skin ailments. Southwestern tribes also used this plant as a hair and body wash as well as for other purposes. Some Navajo weavers still prefer to launder wool fibers in yucca suds.

Not only are yucca roots good for cleansing the outside of the body but brewed properly, a tea made from its roots also works as a laxative to cleanse innards. Several sources state consumers need to use moderation when drinking such teas because of the cathartic properties. According to both the Navajo and the Lakota, yucca root tea brewed a specific way and sipped by laboring mother eased childbirth.

While the roots offer numerous benefits, other parts of the yucca are edible when prepared properly. Early blossoms are a nice addition to a salad. Kiowa Indians roasted and ate the pre-bloom emerging stems, which look like a big stalk of asparagus. Many Southwestern tribes still use banana yucca fruits in their cooking today.

In addition to yucca medicinal, hygiene, and dietary purposes, native people used its fibers to weave sandals, ropes, cordage, nets, and other necessities. Some individuals interwove turkey feathers into the fibers to make warm blankets. At numerous sites, archeologists have documented paintbrushes and hair combs made of yucca leaves. Bound yucca leaves created drills used to start fires. Weavers boiled parts of the plant to create different dyes. Multi-functional, this plant improved life for many early residents of the Great Plains and the Southwest.

Ornamental and functional, yucca plants have another interesting characteristic. Unlike many plants that depend on windblown or indiscriminate insect pollination, yucca species depend on the yucca moth to reproduce. The moth visits the yucca at night and collects pollen in her mouth from the stamen. She then flies to another blossom to lay her egg and deposit the pollen ball onto the blossom’s pistil. Since her larvae eat only yucca pod seeds, the moth and the yucca are mutually dependent for survival. In regions of the world where yucca moths do not exist, yucca plants cannot reproduce naturally.

What looks like a rosette made of spiky swords surrounding a stalk of creamy blossoms each spring is actually a superstore of products. In addition, this plant and its tiny pollinator remind humans of nature’s delicate balance.  This common plant’s existence is a tenuous miracle.

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