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Yucca gigantea Lem. 1859
pronounced: YUK-uh gy-GAN-tee-uh
(Asparagaceae – the asparagus family)
pronounced: YUK-uh gwa-teh-mah-LEN-siss, YUK-uh ell-uh-fan-TY-peez
common name: Spineless Yucca
Yucca is the Latinized form of yuca, the Carib vernacular name for Manihot esculenta, the cassava. For some reason Linnaeus used the name for this unrelated genus. Goodness knows why, as he also named Manihot; gigantea is from the Latin giganteus, of or belonging to the giants; guatemalensis is botanical Latin for ‘from Guatemala’; elephantipes is from the Greek ελεφας (elephas), the elephant, and the Latin pes (pedis), a foot.
This is one of the most versatile indoor and outdoor foliage plants. With its striking architectural shape it can be grown in garden beds and as a spectacular hardy pot plant exposed to sun, frost, heat and wind. It looks marvellous on a patio or around a pool, as can be seen from the fine specimens in the front garden of one of the houses in the Dunoon development in Picnic Bay. It has the added advantage of producing, once or twice a year, a spectacular spike of white or cream edible flowers. They form part of the national dish of Costa Rica – fried eggs, potato and Yucca flower. They are grown commercially for the flowers in many parts of the world, including Australia, and the flowers are sold by auction to restaurateurs who vie with each other to be the first to have the flowers on the menu.
The plant produces its magnificent bell-shaped flowers off and on for short periods during spring and summer, once it is semi-mature. The flowers should be harvested and eaten as they open, or just before they open. The ancient Mayans were highly advanced horticulturalists, and prized the Yucca flower for its medicinal properties. It can be used fresh, steeped in boiled water, or dried for making herbal tea. This tea was used to treat a wide range of disorders, as well as being a tonic for general energy-boosting.
Yucca gigantea is a small evergreen tree reaching up to about 9 m in the wild, but it is usually smaller in cultivation. When mature, it develops a thick branching trunk which is reminiscent of an elephant’s foot at its base, and often branches out 50 cm or so above the ground. Its shiny green leaves, growing in a spiral rosette, are up to 120 cm long and about 7 or 8 cm broad, pliable, and lack the sharp spines on the tips that are a characteristic of most yuccas. The flowers are borne on a tall spike above the foliage; and, unlike many other yuccas, the plant does not die off after flowering. If the flowers are not harvested, they are followed by brown, fleshy fruits which are oval and up to 2.5 cm in length.
The plant is propagated by harvesting tall canes, which are then cut into lengths and potted. This creates two types of plants: canes and tips. The former have small multiple heads, and the latter one large head. Indoor specimens rarely flower. When the plants are established, the trunk can be cut back to encourage early branching to achieve the desired plant shape. It is a very suitable plant for large indoor spaces and malls, and for low maintenance public spaces. There is also a variegated variety.
The Yucca has been used in a variety of ways by South American Indians for thousands of years. Leaves, twigs, buds and fruit provide food, and the crushed roots were used to make soap. The fibres were used for rope making and basket weaving, and juice from the plant was used in folk medicine. The medicine was especially used to relieve arthritis and rheumatism. In Central and South America the plant is still used as a medicinal herb.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 10th March 2017