The Yucca Plant
Yucca whipplei parishii
The Yucca has medicinal, utilitarian, and cultural uses. The stalks are eaten as a substitute for pumpkin in pies and breads. The Yucca produces berries which can be soaked, pounded with Yucca fruit, mixed with water and drained to make a drink. The flowers can also be eaten raw. The leaves of the Yucca can be used for arthritis, fever, headaches, ulcers, and appendicitis. When boiled, the roots can be used for sores, hives, chicken pox, itching rashes, and gangrene. Also, the start or the “heart” of most baskets, comes from the “heart” of the Yucca plant. Leaves were also dried and processed by the Luiseño to make ropes, nets, snares, skirts and woven sandals. Today, one can buy Yucca extracts, pills, and juices at most health food stores.
Versital, Vital Yucca
Yucca is just one of the many indigenous plants have been an important natural resource to California Indians for thousands of years. Still used as food and medicine, the slow-growing bush with long green spear-like leaves grows wild throughout the American Southwest, Mexico and Latin America, has also been used to make baskets, rope, sandals, soap and shampoo. Part of the lily family, there are forty different species of yucca, one of the most distinctive of which is the Joshua Tree.
The two species common to San Diego County are the Mojave Yucca (Y. schidigera), usually found in high and low deserts, and the foothill Yucca (Y. whipplei), commonly called Our Lord’s Candle.
When it blooms, the cactus-like plant produces a long stalk with a panicle of showy white or purple flowers, which are edible. The cooked blossoms are said to taste like sweet peas, and the roasted young flower stalks like baked apple. The fruit is a yellow-green color, about 3 to 5 inches long. The root can be eaten fresh after cooking, milled into flour or made into a paste. In addition to what they gathered from the wild, there is evidence that the Kumeyaay were cultivating yucca plants in the Sycamore Canyon area and Jacumba Valley in the 1800s. Yucca is still a dietary staple in Latin America, where it’s often used as a substitute for potatoes.
The use of yucca as a food source is growing more popular: last year more than ten million pounds of processed yucca were sold in the United States. A good source of dietary fiber, yucca contains a high amount of vitamin C, with approximately 120 calories per 3.5-ounce serving. Skinless, pre-cut yucca is sold in grocery or ethnic stores in pre-packaged, frozen bags. Another popular use for the plant: Yucca Chips. Similar in appearance and slightly sweeter than potato chips, yucca chips are marketed as a healthy snack food alternative. The magic ingredient of the yucca plant is a substance called saponins, a natural detergent. American Indians used the yucca root as shampoo for radiant shiny hair and to prevent dandruff. When dropped into vinegar, the blossoms can be used as a hair rinse, by mixing one ounce of the mixture to 8 ounces of water.
Nets of yucca fibers were used by the Kumeyaay Indians to capture rabbits; fish were caught with abalone shell hooks and lines made of yucca, as well as agave or yucca nets made with cactus thorns. Yucca is also proving in modern clinical trials to have remarkable medicinal qualities. American Indians have traditionally used the yucca plant to treat the symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism and gout. Medical research is proving them right. In the past decade, more than one hundred universities and institutions around the world have investigated the natural healing properties of the yucca plant. Studies indicate that adding yucca plant to the diet can wash out the harmful toxins that cause arthritis. Used as a food supplement, yucca extract acts like a natural form of cortisone, to reduce and eliminate pain, swollen and stiff joints. Scientists are studying how saponins found in the yucca plants can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, reduce intestinal toxicity, fight fungal infections, combat microbes and viruses, boost the effectiveness of certain vaccines, and possibly inhibit or even kill cancer cells, amazingly, with no reported side effects.
The useful yucca was but one of the many plant communities identified by the Spanish explorers that resulted from plant husbandry and agriculture practiced by San Diego County Indians for many thousand years. They planted acorns and grew oaks, trees and other shrubs, moved desert and mountain plants to coastal environments. Cultivated and harvested the coastal marshes for reeds, salt producing and medicinal plants, and grew grain, grapes, corn and cactus gardens. The Kumeyaay broadcast seeds, planted bulbs and annuals, and practiced controlled burning to create meadows and clear undergrowth for planting and fire protection. The land was well cared for because to the early Kumeyaay the earth was the grocery store, natural pharmacy and source of technological materials.