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Boerne Chapter

Yucca – aquifer-friendly landscape plant

Author: Bill Ward

Operation NICE! (Natives Instead of the Common Exotics!) starts the new year with yucca, a plant that is very Texan and very NICE!. Yuccas grow in all parts of Texas; there are 16 species native to the state. Once established in a yard or garden, yuccas require very little care of any kind, and, most importantly, they grow without irrigation. Aquifer-conserving landscape plants are increasingly more desirable in the Hill Country.

Yuccas come in enough varieties that almost any yard can include a species or two to good effect. There are small yuccas that are a foot or two high and large yuccas that grow up to 25 feet tall. There are yuccas with hard dagger-like leaves and yuccas with soft pliable leaves. For our climate most yuccas are sufficiently cold-hardy, and they are evergreen so they stand out in a winter landscape.

Close up of yucca blooms
Buckley yucca bloom.

Four species of yucca are native to this area. The twist-leaf yucca (Yucca rupicola) is low-growing with “soft” twisting leaves. In the late spring it sends up a bloom stalk with white bell-shaped flowers. This Hill Country endemic can grow and bloom just fine in shady areas under live oaks. In my experience, this is one yucca that can be successfully transplanted from the wild. Other yuccas have deep taproots that make transplanting difficult or impossible.

Another common Hill Country plant is Buckley yucca (Y. constricta). This grows as tight balls of slender leaves up to two feet long. The leaves are characterized by curly threads along the edges. In time, this yucca may develop a short trunk. The bloom stalk is multibranched and crowded with white flowers.

A similar thin-leaf yucca also growing in this area is the Arkansas yucca (Y. arkansana). This species, too, has whitish curly fibers along leaf margins, but differs from Buckley yucca in having a typically unbranched bloom stalk.

Spanish dagger (Y. treculeana) is a broader-leaf yucca growing throughout South Texas up to the southeastern Edwards Plateau. It may be tree-like, up to 20 feet tall. The ones in this area tend to be shorter with stocky trunks. The spectacular clusters of cream-colored blossoms may be 3 feet high and 2 feet broad.

Yucca type plant in bloom, with tall stalk topped with white flowers
Twist-leaf with bloom.

Some of our indigenous yuccas may not be available in the nursery trade, but most nurseries carry similar species. A popular landscape yucca available in nurseries is pendulous yucca (Y. recurvifolia), a native of the southeastern US. This species has flexible leaves and grows into a 4- to 6-foot shrub. Other southeastern US yuccas cultivated in Texas are Spanish bayonet (Y. aloifolia) and another Spanish dagger (Y. gloriosa). These species probably require a little more water than our native species.

Highly drought-tolerant species from Trans Pecos Texas may be available in nurseries from time to time. Boerne Chapter member Becky Eterno recommends banana yucca (Y. baccata), beaked yucca (Y. rostrata), and Thompson yucca (Y. thompsoniana) as desirable landscape plants.

Deer browsing of yucca foliage generally is not a problem, but yucca blossoms are the chocolate candy of the deer herds. As soon as I see the first sign of bloom stalks growing from our twist-leaf yuccas, I put up temporary wire-fence exclosures. That’s the only way we get to enjoy those pretty white flowers.

Yuccas apparently are tolerant of poor soils and many grow in full sun to part shade. All in all, they are very easy to grow. The Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides free planting and care instructions for yuccas at nurseries participating in Operation NICE! (Hill Country African Violets & Nursery and Maldonado Landscape & Nursery).

American Indians recognized the value of native yuccas. They used nearly every part of the plants. According to “Texas Trees – a Friendly Guide” by Paul Cox and Patty Leslie, the trunks were used for stockades, and leaves, for thatching huts. Yucca flowers were eaten raw, boiled, or pickled. A soap for washing hair and clothes was made from the roots. In Mexico leaf fibers still are used for making twine, rope, cloth, mats, sandals, and saddle blankets.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason