Down to Earth: The Herb Yucca

The Yucca War


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In the last year of my father’s life, he lost much of the control he had always exercised over the things around him. He lost his ability to drive, to garden, and to work in the yard. He gave up growing tomatoes and corn. He quit cultivating the long row of rhubarb in the garden and let the raspberry patch dwindle to just a few plants. The sage my mother had grown from seed died from neglect, and the old spearmint bed fell prey to the lawn mower. All he could do was totter around the property that had always been his domain, first with the aid of a cane and later with a walker.

I watched as the scope of his life got smaller. A trip to the mailbox became a major event. The lawn was an intimidating prairie wilderness, the lawn mower as large as a bulldozer. As his world changed, Dad’s need to control something, anything, finally led him to focus on a yucca, or soapweed (Yucca glauca), that I had planted next to the garage soon after the building was completed in the 1950s. Granted, it wasn’t a very good spot for a yucca: if you strayed off the narrow path that ran between the garage and the house, you risked being stabbed by the spiny clump’s leaves.

Although he had largely ignored the tough herb during its thirty-five-year tenure on his property, my dad never liked the plant. But because my mom was especially fond of the showy white, bell-shaped blooms and often served them in salads, I use to try to keep the skin-piercing, pointed leaves trimmed, and I frequently told Dad about yucca’s many uses in the hope of inspiring his appreciation for the plant.

I explained how Native Americans used the fibers from the leaves of the plant, which grows wild throughout central Missouri and much of the Midwest, South, and Southwest, to weave cloth. I told him how more than 8 million pounds of burlap bags were made from the plant fibers during World War I, when there was a shortage of jute. I told him about seeing yucca roots in the grocery store and that people still eat the root like a vegetable, as they did in earlier days. I reminded him that his own grandparents had used the roots as a natural soap for washing their clothes as well as poulticing them on skin inflammations, sprains, and cuts.

But Dad saw no value in the plant despite its historical uses. He found no pleasure in discovering yucca flowers in his salads, and he thought the flower stalks, which grew to 6 or 7 feet tall, were a bother to dispose of every fall. So, having decided in the last year of his life that the yucca was one thing he might still control, he asked me to buy him a 1-quart pump garden sprayer. In his fashion, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do with it, and I didn’t ask. He then asked his housekeeper to buy some concentrated brush killer. On quiet days when no one was around and he had enough energy to maneuver his walker, he’d mix up a quart of poison and spray it on the yucca.

I learned of Dad’s project only after he’d had to move into a nursing home. Thinking about his adversary somehow seemed to sustain him. He admitted that he hadn’t been able to completely kill the plant—the tough leaves remained green even when lifeless, and new sprouts replaced the dead ones. If he could just get his strength back so that he could move back home, he told me one day, his blue eyes still showing the old sparkle, he thought he could kill the yucca with just one more application of poison.

A young family bought the old place after Dad died. As they looked over the property, I saw the wife point to the yucca and overheard her say to her husband, “Oh, look. There’s that plant your grandma told me your family used for folk remedies.” The husband ambivalently confirmed that it was, as if undecided whether the plant really belonged there or not.

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.