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Medicinal Plants of the SW: Yucca spp.

Yucca spp.

Taxonomy: Magnoliophyta (angiosperm), Liliopsida (monocot), Agavaceae, Yucca

Common Names: Narrowleaf Yucca, Soaptree Yucca, Beargrass, Fineleaf Yucca, Yucca, Soapweed Yucca.

 by Titrisa Nez, Bridges program, Summer 1999

There are different species of Yucca everywhere in the Southwest. These plants are easy to identify.

  • They have long and narrow leaves that are radiate from the base of the plant and they also have very sharp needle ends

   .
(photo by Zoncho Tso)

  • Right in the center of the Yucca plant there is usually a flower stalk (3-5ft. long) that has lily-like flowers and fruit pods
  • The fruit pods are 2-3 inches in length and and 1-2 inches in width.Inside these fruits are seeds which are thin, black, and coarse.
  • The roots have a woody thick bark covering the outer layer and the core of the root is spongy.
  • Some Yucca species grow 10 to 13 ft. tall. They grow in dry and sandy deserts, mesas, and Plains.


(photo by Zoncho Tso)

 


 Cultural Aspects:

Many Southwest tribes have used this plant for traditional purposes and a way of living. Personally, being a Navajo Indian from the Diné Nation, my grandmother has used this plant in many amazing ways. When I was younger she would gather yucca leaves and roots, soak them in water and washed my hair with it. She would tell me that it would make my hair clean, strong and thicker. Because the roots are hard to get to, she would use the leaves to get the soap and would use this on sunburns, scratches and cuts, also on dry cuticles around our fingernails. For occasions, my grandmother would burn yucca leaves until it turned into ashes. Then she would mix this with her bread-making so the bread would turn a blue-ish color. This kind of bread is called blue bread and paper bread, which is a very thin paper-like bread. She told me, long ago she used the yucca seeds to dye yarn (sheep wool) to make her rugs.

Many of the other Indian tribes still use parts of the yucca to make designs on Indian painting, baskets, and other arts & crafts. A long time ago the tips of yucca leaves were used as sewing needles, or as tools for design work. This plant also has an important use in sacred Indian ceremonies.

 

Medicinal Uses:

The yucca root and leaves have steroidal saponins which are used for inflammation, pain relieving for arthritic and joint pain. It is also good for blood purifying and cleaning of the kidneys and liver. (1st herbshop, 1999). Many herbalists and healers used the yucca plant by boiling the roots for about half an hour and drinking it as tea.

 Non-Medicinal Uses:

Again in my Native tribe, we use this plant for arts & crafts, food, dye to color fibers and yarn to make rugs also to make a black dye color for art in Indian basketry designs. We used the yucca in a game called the Shoe Game (Moccasin Game) by using the yucca sticks (leaves) to keep the score, whoever ends up with all of the sticks (102 yucca leaves) wins the game! Navajos also use the yucca leaves as a whipping belt which are used by the sacred clowns in various ceremonies like the Night Chant Ceremony. Some Navajos also use this to make yucca fruit rolls that are part of the Puberty Ceremony (a ceremony when a girl becomes a woman).

Active Ingredients:

Steroidal saponin is a highly active compound found in yucca plants. Saponins are precursors to cortisone and provide relief for symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism pain (Dr. Larry Milam, H. MD; 1999). Rich in Vitamin A, B-complex, and Vitamin C, yucca is also a good source of copper, calcium, manganese, potassium, and fiber. (Medicinal uses of herbs,1999).

digitonin, an example of a saponin [image from ChemFinder.com]

References:

Epple, Anne Orth and Lewis E. Epple.Plants of Arizona. Lewann Publishing Co., Mesa, Arizona, 1995
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Museum of New Mexico Press.
Bulletin by Dr. Larry Milan,H.MD. http://members.aol.com/greenmagik/osteo.htm
1st herb shop for a healthy lifestyle. http://www.1stherbshop.com/yucca/index.htm
Medical uses of herbs. http://www2.itexas.net/~sparrow/aroma.html

 


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Updated February 13, 2008

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