Spanish Daggers are Blooming!
by Ro Wauer
It again is that time of the year when our tall, heavy-leaved yuccas are blooming. On a recent trip into the Texas Hill Country, these marvelous plants dotted the landscape. And earlier in extreme South Texas and further south in Mexico, Spanish daggers were also in full bloom. In fact, Spanish dagger stalks covered with flowers were a common sight at vendors along the Mexican roadsides. The flowers are eaten throughout northern Mexico.
Spanish daggers, with their tall white-flowered stalks, are difficult to miss this time of year. Some of these plants may reach 20 feet in height, although most are less than half that. But whatever their size they are extremely attractive when in bloom. The great masses of flowers have given the plant the name of "Our Lord's Candles," which is most appropriate. Other common names include "Spanish Bayonet" and "Palma Pita." Scientists know the plant as Yucca treculeana.
Our Spanish dagger is but one of about twenty species of yuccas in Texas. Most botanists place yuccas in the lily family, while others lump them with agaves in the agave family. South Texas's Spanish daggers possess thick, dark green or bluish green leaves that branch out in all directions from the stalk. Some of these fleshy leaves may be 40 inches long and three inches wide at the base and taper to a very fine, sharp point. They can easily puncture the skin or clothing. The flowers, borne in dense masses, contain three outer sepals and three inner petals up to two inches long. After blooming in spring, sometimes from February to mid-summer, leathery fruits appear. These may be four inches long and filled with tightly packed black seeds.
Each yucca is a complete ecosystem, utilized by a wide array of creatures, large and small. Besides those that feed on the fleshy flowers, ground squirrels and wood rats nibble on the fleshy leaves. And the wood rats, better known as pack rats, often build a nest at the base of a yucca, hauling in volumes of materials for the cache. And several birds build nests on the yuccas, usually within the protection of the daggerlike leaves. The birds, such as mockingbirds, also take advantage of the tall yuccas for singing and observation posts year-round.
But the yucca ecosystem also includes a number of much smaller creatures that require closer inspection. The most important of these is the tiny pronuba moth, which sips nectar from the yucca flowers and, in doing so, fertilizes the plant. All yuccas are dependent upon pronuba moths for their long-term survival. The female pronuba moth collects pollen from the yucca flowers with long, curled, spinelike tentacles. She rolls the pollen into a ball that she tucks into a depression behind her head. She then flies to a second yucca where she inserts her eggs into the ovary of another flower with her piercing ovipositor. After ovipositing, she thrusts the pollen taken from the previous flower into the stigma of the flower in which she laid her eggs.
Elizabeth Silverthorne, in Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers, explains what happens next: "The moth eggs and the seeds develop together in the yucca ovary, and the tiny caterpillars eat the developing seeds. But since there are only two or three larvae in each blossom and hundreds of seeds in each ovary, the plants is not harmed... Eventually the larva chews a hole in the seed pod and spins a thread by which it lowers itself to the ground. Burrowing a few inches into the soil, it slowly completes its metamorphosis and emerges as an adult moth the following year just as the yucca is in bloom - and the cycles begins again."
Native Americans and Texas settlers also utilized Spanish daggers in numerous ways. Besides eating the new flowers, that can be eaten raw, cut up and fried or pickled, the leaves are very fibrous and were fashioned into sandals, baskets, rope, and cloth. The petals are high in vitamin C. They also were used for fencing and in thatching for walls of huts. The fruits were also eaten, baked, peeled, striped of fiber, and boiled down to a pulp that was then rolled out in sheets and dried; the material could then be stored and used like molasses on bread and tortillas. Prepared fruits also were fermented for a powerful beverage, and soap, known as "amole," was made from some yucca roots.
Although Spanish daggers are seldom utilized today like they were by our ancestors, they still offer a marvelous example of our natural heritage.
Tags: Environment, Nature, Texas, Writing, Culture, Spanish Dagger