Yucca? Agave? What’s the difference? Many folks find it hard to tell one big round rosette of sword-like spiny leaves from another big round spiny plant. They are all related anyway. Like palms, they are kin to grasses and lack true wood. The main thing to know as an owner of one of these plants is that agave plants will flower once then die, while yuccas flower year after year.
Yucca flowers are great. Produced in giant clusters of big bold creamy white flowers on tall stalks, the flowers open at night and last a number of days. Every night the base of each flower fills with nectar while they release a sweet fragrance to entice their favorite pollinator, the yucca moth.
Yuccas come in many different sizes, forms, and degrees of “stickeryness.” Some have narrow pointed leaves, others have broad relaxed leaves. Consider what effect you are going for in your landscape before you plant one. There are many ways to classify yuccas, but since this discussion is about them as pleasing landscape plants, let’s look at their overall forms. These can be divided into four groups.
Tall trunk and branching yuccas with multiple branches. This group includes the famous Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) from the Mojave desert. Joshua trees slowly grow to reach 30 feet high and 30 feet wide. For a more tropical look, choose the spineless yucca (Yucca elephantipes), with bright green leaves, this plant also reaches 30 feet but only around 15 wide. Tropical indeed, it looks like it has been living in tropical Margaritaville. Not the right selection if you like tidy plants.
Tall trunk yuccas that don’t branch very much include the soaptree yucca (Yucca elata), reaching 20 feet tall, with graceful green leaves, these make tidy, bold and striking accent plants. The roots are used for shampoo. Blue yucca (Yucca rigida) from the Chihuahuan Desert has upright silvery blue leaves reaches twelve feet and spreads its arms to five feet, and looks dramatic in a yard that has blue tones.
Short yuccas that form clumps with many heads include the very sharp Spanish dagger or aloe yucca (Yucca aloifolia) with individuals to ten feet tall and five feet around. Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) has olive green leaves which look nice in with creosote bushes. Individuals generally reach around six feet tall and three feet wide.
Short yuccas that rarely branch or pup but often get very big around include Our Lord’s candle (Yucca whipplei), reaching three feet tall and six feet wide with striking rigid grey green leaves. The pendulous yucca (Yucca recurvifolia) is a fast growing yucca reaching six feet tall and around with softly recurved faintly bluish leaves. The banana yucca (Yucca baccata) also falls in this group, reaching three feet tall and five feet wide. Best of all, the banana yucca produces highly edible young fruit. Steamed they taste similar to asparagus.
Just remember that some of these yuccas can get very large, and plan your planting accordingly.
If you want to learn more about gardening in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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