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Tips for the Compleat Gardener: The surprise of yucca


This time of year I always find myself drawn to the flower of the yucca plant. It is like a celebration rising tall above daylilies, ivory colored bells against the blue sky of summer being born.

They don’t release their sweet scent until the night pollinators are out and about, moths, beetles and bats in the moonlight. This trait as well as its beautiful tower of bells makes it a great part of the evening garden where you sit and enjoy the night. Datura and Nicotianna are other tall, white evening-scented plants for around the night terrace.

Yucca filamentosa is a member of the Agave family, an evergreen native with stiff blade shaped leaves that end in a sharp point and with the flowers on a separate stalk (raceme) that rises several feet above the plant. The flowers develop and bloom on the lower raceme moving upwards.

Each flower consists of three sepals, three petals (together called tepals), six male stamens with heavy pollen and one pistil all positioned to make self-fertilization difficult. This plant depends on fertilization by the yucca moths who are attracted by the sweet smell in evening.

Most of the yuccas are native to the western part but Y. glauca is found in eastern areas of the U.S. along with several of its family members such as the agave, aloe and more. They can spread by root movement through the soil and are very hard to remove once established.

The yucca plant is perennial and evergreen sending up a new flower stalk annually. The stalk continues to be a garden feature as pods ripen and seeds emerge. Birds enjoy perching on it and those helpful moth pollinators use the seed pods as nurseries.

While pollinating the plant the moth inserts eggs into parts of the flower, usually only two or three per flower and as seeds begin to form in the pod the baby caterpillars eat about a third of the seeds as they grow leaving plenty.

As the flowering ends many of the flowers are dropped, even pollinated ones, keeping the balance appropriate for survival. The Yucca plant is not food for other than its special moth though perching sites and nesting cavities exist and we can eat the flowers.

Spanish bayonet, another name for yucca, is drought resistant, has a low allergy presence, can be used in a wind-resistant border, is great for rooftop gardening and helps stop fires, in fact yuccas should be the main landscape plant for houses in dry, fire zones.

The plant has strong fibers for making cordage, baskets, cloth, nets baskets and even footwear. A mild soapy liquid can be made from the roots to use in cleaning giving it another name of soapweed.

Yuccas look good with grasses and other prairie plants in a low-maintenance landscape along with a weeping blue spruce or atlas cedar. It is often associated with prickly pear cactus in landscape design. The cacti can be seen blooming now even wild along the cliffs by the Delaware River. I am always surprised that the cactus is also native to this area; when I happen upon it I feel I have somehow stumbled into the desert.

In the garden this week make sure your salvias are deadheaded to prolong the bloom time and make sure you water the newly planted even if it rains.

Happy July