Spanish Daggers Are in Bloom
by Ro Wauer
In spite of the extremely dry conditions throughout the area, many of our native plants are blooming. One of those is the fleshy-leaved Spanish dagger, our common yucca that is also known as Spanish bayonet, Palma Pita, or Our Lord's Candle. Scientists know the Spanish dagger as Yucca treculeana.
Some years the landscape is dotted with the ivory blooms of this large plant, but blooms are less numerous this year. Coastal forms of Spanish daggers tend to be taller with shorter leaves and a relatively slender trunk; more inland plants possess longer leaves with a shorter, stockier trunk. The flowering stalks may reach 20 feet in height, although most are less than half that. The yucca leaves are thick, dark green or bluish green and 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 fine, sharp point. They can easily puncture the skin or clothing.
Native Americans and Texas settlers utilized Spanish daggers in numerous ways. Leaves provided coarse fiber that was made into sandals, baskets, rope, and cloth. They also were used for fencing and in thatching for walls and sides of huts. Young flower stalks, buds, and flowers were eaten raw, boiled, or pickled. The petals, often used in salads, are high in vitamin C. The fruits were also baked, peeled, stripped 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 were also fermented for a powerful beverage, and soap, known as "amole," was made from some yucca roots.
Our Spanish dagger is but one of twenty yucca species known in Texas, according to Donovan Correll and Marshall Johnson's classic Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas. Most botanists place yuccas in the lily family, while others lump them with agaves in the agave family. But whatever its lineage, each yucca plant is a complete ecosystem in itself. A wide array of creatures, large and small, utilizes the plants year-round. Beside those that feed on the fresh 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.
Several birds also build nests on the yuccas, usually within the protection of the daggerlike leaves. Examples include mockingbirds, roadrunners, wrens, and Harris's and white-tailed hawks. They also take advantage of the tall yuccas for observation posts year-round, or, in the case of the mockingbird, for singing posts.
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 lays its eggs within the flowers, thus pollinating the plants by pushing pollen into the stigma tube in the process. In return, the moth larvae feed on the seeds. All yuccas, therefore, are dependent upon the pronuba moth for the long-term survival of the species.
In addition, yuccas are also utilized by the yucca giant-skipper (a butterfly, not a moth) that flies in March and April. The female lays its eggs on the yucca leaves, the tiny larvae (caterpillars) then burrow into the leaves and gradually eat their way to the base of the plant where they remain until the following spring. The fully grown caterpillar will then emerge at the base of the yucca in the spring, and it then builds a small chimney of debris and goo where is lives for several days before emerging as an adult. It then seeks out a mate and the process begins again.
But however the moth and butterfly reproduce, our Spanish daggers are one of our most outstanding native plants.