Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yucca: Native Superstore and Miracle

Native to the Great Plains, Yucca, or soapweed, grows from Mexico to Canada. Often used as an ornamental plant in xeriscapes, this spiky vegetation punctuates pastures, hillsides, and blowouts. Because western Kansans see yucca so frequently, they don’t think much about to this plant that functioned as a superstore to many Indian tribes.

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

Not only are yucca roots good for cleansing the outside of the body but brewed properly, a tea made from them also works as a laxative to cleanse innards. However, consumers do need to use moderation when drinking such teas because of their cathartic properties. They will really clean a body out.  According to both the Navajo and the Lakota, components of this plant brewed a specific way and sipped by laboring mothers eases childbirth.  That’s a bonus in any culture.

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. They are nutritious and pretty to look at. Kiowa Indians roasted and ate the pre-bloom, emerging stems, which look like a gigantic stalk of asparagus. One rib of this would provide the day’s vegetable dietary requirement. 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 create warm blankets. At numerous sites, archeologists have documented paintbrushes and hair combs made of the sword-like leaves. Bound yucca spines created drills utilized 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 practical, 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.  Moths visit the white blossoms at night to collect pollen and then fly to other blooms to lay eggs and deposit this reproductive dust onto the blossom’s pistil. Since thelarvae eat only yucca pod seeds, these moths and the yucca are mutually dependent for survival. In regions of the world where yucca moths do not exist, the plants cannot reproduce without intervention.

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

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