Spanish Dagger, Yucca

Yucca treculeana Carr.
Yucca constricta Buckl.
Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Yucca is an evergreen plant with spine-tipped leaves that grow in a rosette around a thickened, central stem. Native peoples of the region used the tough leaves for fiber, the central stem for a strong soap/detergent, and they probably baked the central stem for food. The roots in some species are thickened, providing soap. The flowers are edible when picked at the right time, and the fruit of some species is edible when baked or roasted.

Two types of yucca plants grow in the South Texas Plains, a thick-leaf (or fleshy) yucca and a thin-leaf yucca. The thick-leaf yucca of the region is Yucca treculeana (formerly referred to as Yucca torreyi), commonly known as Spanish dagger. The common thin-leaf yucca of the region is Yucca constricta, or Buckley yucca.

Yucca leaves have strong fibers suitable for weaving and other uses, and the stems of most species can be used for soap. Yucca flowers and flower stalks are edible. The thick-leaf yuccas have edible fruits, but the fruits of thin-leaf yuccas dry into a woody case that splits open, discharging the seeds. Like the agaves, the yuccas store carbohydrates in their stems, and some groups harvested yucca stems, baking them in earth ovens in a fashion similar to lechuguilla and sotol.

Archeological Occurrences. There are no archeological findings of yucca seeds from the South Texas Plains, probably due to a lack of research. In adjacent areas that are better studied, however, the findings abound. San Angleo yucca, similar to Buckley yucca, was common in the trash deposits in Baker Cave, on the Devils River (Brown 1991). In all of the rockshelters in the Lower Pecos, where the preservation of plant materials is astonishingly good, both yucca leaves and yucca seeds occur by the thousands (Dering 1979, 1999; Irving 1966). Some dried human coprolites (feces) collected from Hinds Cave were loaded with pollen providing evidence that the ancient inhabitants ate yucca flowers. We can infer this behavior because yucca pollen is never released into the air; in order for large quantities of pollen to be recovered someone had to be eating the flowers (Williams-Dean 1978). Sandals as well as many other implements such as traps, snares, and basketry, collected from well-preserved rockshelter sites in the Lower Pecos region, have yucca components (Andrews and Adovasio 1980).

Food. Neither Yucca constricta nor Yucca treculeana grow in the regions where rich historical accounts were written or ethnobotanies were conducted, so they are not mentioned in any ethnographic record. Willis Bell and Edward Castetter (1941:18) noted that the Apache in New Mexico, who ranged from the upper Rio Grande eastward to the area around Uvalde, had many uses for yucca. It is likely that they used the yuccas of southern Texas in similar ways to they used the closely related yuccas in their western range. The stems, leaf bases, flowers, emerging flower stalks, and fruits of many Southwestern yuccas were edible when harvested and processed properly.

Emerging flower stalks were collected "just as they came into bloom", roasted on coals (Castetter and Opler 1936:38). My experience is that the flower stalks have to be removed within a few days after they emerge and long before they bloom, or they become far too fibrous and tasteless to eat, even after baking them. The flower stalks of narrow-leaf yuccas are edible raw, but it's best to eat the portion just below the leaf-like bracts, because they can be a bit prickly. Baking the stalks helps to soften any prickles. By the time the flower buds are visible, the sugar has been expended and the stalk is about as palatable as manila rope. The figure at right shows edible flower stalks that have been picked long before the flowers begin to emerge. They resemble large versions of asparagus.

The flowers of many yucca species are edible. Most informants emphasize that the flowers had to be picked "at the right time". This is clearly the case, as yucca flowers can either grace a salad or ruin it, depending on how soon the harvester got to the plant after it began to bloom, and which plant one picks. Taste them before you bother to take them home. The Apache preferred the flowers of Yucca elata, a thin-leaf yucca, to those of the thick-leaf banana yucca (Bell and Castetter 1941:19). We know that the flowers were eaten thousands of years ago because unusually large amounts of yucca pollen have been found in some dried human feces collected from Hinds Cave (Williams-Dean 1978).

Edible yucca fruits come only from the thick-leaf yuccas, represented in the South Texas Plains by the Spanish dagger (Yucca treculeana). The fruit of Spanish dagger is thick and measures about four inches long. Unfortunately, we have no direct ethnographic observations of its use. However, the similar and widespread banana yucca or datil, Yucca baccata, is well-documented, having a distribution that stretches from western Texas throughout northern reaches of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts. Most groups within its range harvested the fruits, then roasted or baked them. The resulting product is brown and sweet, tasting much like molasses or figs.

After baking, most groups continued the process by stripping the seeds and pounding the remaining flesh of the baked fruit into a pulp. They shaped the pulp into flatcakes, and sun-dried them. The sun dried cakes could be stored or ground into a powder for mixing with other foods. Some groups, like the Gila Pima, boiled the fruit, dried it, and pounded it into a sweet meal (Russell 1908).

People were not alone in their appreciation of yucca fruit. Competition with animals was so fierce that several Native American groups harvested the fruits before they ripened. The Yavapai ripened the fruits by burying them under a mound of earth or soaking them in water (Gifford 1932).The Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache collected the fruits before they were fully ripe, placed them on bluestem grass, and covered them with grass in full sunlight so that the warmth would continue the ripening process. They roasted the fruit on hot coals, removed the blackened skin, and split it to remove the strips of seeds inside. The remainder was pounded into flatcakes and spread on animal hide to dry in the sun. The sweet juice drained from the fruits while being pounded and shaped into cakes was usually consumed or poured over the cakes. Dried cakes would keep for a very long time (Castetter and Opler 1936:39). Other groups that utilized the banana yucca fruit include Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, Pima, Yavapai, and Zuni.

In addition to historical/ethnographic accounts, we have some experimental information on yucca fruit. Neal Stilley has conducted several experiments cooking both banana yucca and Spanish dagger (Yucca treculeana). He found that banana yucca is not a only larger fruit, but also a much tastier fruit. Despite its bland taste, the Spanish dagger fruit is quite edible and would have provided an excellent source of carbohydrates. When baked and dried, the fruit of both species will keep for several months.

Stems or trunks of the thin-leaf yuccas were harvested and eaten by several native groups. Like the agaves, the yuccas store carbohydrates linked to steroids in a class of chemicals called saponins -- a toxic, soapy compound. To render yucca stems edible, saponins must be broken down by baking the stem in an earth oven. Castetter and Opler (1936:38-39) describe the preparation of soaptree (Yucca elata), a thin-leaf, tree-like yucca that grows throughout the Southwest.

The authors are describing baking the "trunk" of this tall yucca, and I have tried this with a smaller species only to find that the trunk portion is too dry and fibrous for eating. However the upper portion of the trunk encased in leaves it still somewhat edible, if a bit soapy. The inner leaves, those just emerging within the central portion of the rosette, are edible after boiling with other foods or alone.

Medicine. Yucca fruit are not only sweet, they are, like agaves, a very strong laxative (Colton 1974; Palmer 1871). A large plate of this tasty treat will keep you running like the Eveready bunny. Many other parts of the yucca were concocted into laxative potions. The Kiowa treated a number of skin problems with yucca sap (Vestal and Schultes 1939). The Lakota used an infusion of yucca roots to treat vermin-infested hair (Rogers 1980). The western Apache shaman used the flower stalk of soaptree in healing activities, shaping it like a snake, chewing it up, and spitting on the patient (Buskirk 1986).

Other Uses. Yucca is an excellent source of soap or detergent. When the central stems or rhizomes of some yuccas are pounded and soaked in water, the resultant mix will foam due to the saponins they contain. In the South Texas Plains, Spanish dagger provides the best source of this natural detergent. Many groups used yucca as soap for bathing, and for washing clothing, hair, and any thing else that needed cleaning.

Spanish dagger leaves contain a long straight fiber that provided material for baskets, fine cordage, and perhaps even paintbrushes. The entire leaf of the thin-leaved yuccas has been used to weave mats in a manner similar to the mats woven with sotol leaves. The Papago used the leaves or the fiber from the leaves to weave mats or to tie basket coils. They also used the leaves to attach material to house frames (Castetter and Underhill 1935:54). The Cahuilla used yucca to make sandals and nets (Bean and Saubel 1972). Recognizing the effectiveness of saponins as a hemolytic compound, the Ramah Navajo used the sap from leaves as arrow-tip poison (Vestal 1952).

Yucca played an interesting, perhaps even significant role in Zuni ceremonialism. Participants taking on the persona of anthropic (human-like) gods carried yucca flower stalks in both hands. They used the flower stalks to whip certain individuals, including patients asking to be relieved of bad dreams, or other participants who were drifting off to sleep during the ceremony. Some "personators" of anthropic gods also wore a yucca leaf wrapped around their heads, and the observer took pains to emphasize that the yucca band was not visible to the spectator. They also wore yucca ribbons around their ankles and wrists (Stevenson 1915:99; 1904:130).


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photo of yucca
Spanish dagger in bloom.
photo of yucca
Yucca constricta, with distinctive narrow leaves.
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Flower stalks of various desert plants, picked long before blooms emerge. From left to right, yucca, sotol, and agave.
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Yucca constricta in bloom. The flowers of this, and many other yuccas, are edible.
photo of yucca
Edible fruit of the Spanish dagger.