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Yucca — New Mexico's state flower

By Susan Tweit

Last updated on Wednesday, January 01, 2003

The majestic soaptree yucca spears the New Mexico sky . Photo by Michael and Allison Goldstein.
The majestic soaptree yucca spears
Driving Interstate 10 between Deming and Lordsburg, travelers cross mile after mile of high grassy plains punctuated by odd-looking plants the height of a small trees. Growing up to 20 feet tall, the plants look like thick-trunked, short, palm, hence one common name:  palmilla, "little palm." These grassland "trees" are soaptree yucca, the state flower of New Mexico.

Soaptree yucca is an interesting plant in all seasons. But its flowers are truly spectacular. In late spring and early summer, soaptree yucca sprouts flower stalks up to ten feet tall, laden with clusters of waxy, ivory-colored, bell-shaped blossoms. On moonlit nights, the tall, glowing columns inspire another common name:  "Our Lord's Candles."

Soaptree yucca flowers exude a subtle fragrance that attracts nighttime nectar feeders like bats and moths. But like all yucca species, soaptree yucca depends on just one particular pollinator, a yucca moth. The relationship is so specific that different species of yucca moths pollinate different species of yucca. And each depends on the other:  The small, night-flying moths cross-pollinate the flowers, ensuring yucca reproduction; the developing yucca fruit, in turn, nourishes the growing moth larvae. Female yucca moths fly from flower to flower, gathering pollen from one flower, shaping it into a ball, then flying to another flower. They stuff the pollen ball into the second flower and deposit their eggs in its ovary. The growing moth larvae feed on the fruit and seeds, leaving sufficient seeds to produce new yucca plants.

Yucca has long been useful to Southwesterners. People split and chewed the fibrous leaves to make rope, matting, sandals, baskets, and cloth. The leaves also thatched house roofs and shade ramadas. The succulent buds and young flower stalks were prized as a vegetable, and the ripe fruits roasted and dried. The name "soaptree yucca" refers to the gentle soap obtained from the pounded or boiled roots of all yuccas.

Most yucca leaves are stiff, quite waxy, and end in a stout spine, repelling all but the most determined grazers. But soaptree yucca leaves are slender and comparatively flexible. Woodrats relish them. They shear the leaves off at the base, leaving the yucca looking like it has received a buzz cut, then tote the leaves off for food and nest-building material. Cattle, deer, pronghorn, and other grazers nibble on soaptree yucca leaves and search out the succulent young flower stalks. Birds like orioles and cactus wrens hide their nests deep in the protected heart of the dense leaf rosettes. Where trees or utility poles are lacking, tall yucca stalks provide perches for shrikes and hawks.

If you travel across Southern New Mexicos grasslands in late spring or early summer, you can't miss soaptree yucca and its towering ivory "candles." But to really appreciate our state flower, visit the yucca forests on a moonlit night, when the blossoms glow and softly scent the air.

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