Curator’s Corner: Yucca
by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections
We eat it, use it for fiber, use it for needles and awls, make sandals out of it, make soap out of it, we just love the many uses of Yucca!
Yucca is the state plant of New Mexico — it grows throughout most of the Americas but most notably in the Southwestern United States, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. There are about 50 different species of Yucca roaming around the Americas but the one New Mexicans are most familiar with is the Yucca Baccata with its green stiff leaves and beautiful white flowers.
As mentioned earlier, Yucca has been used for all manner of domestic objects and is eaten as well. For thousands of years, Native Americans have harnessed the power of Yucca to make both everyday and extraordinary objects.
Both plain and simple sandals to footwear dyed and woven with staggering intricacy are made with yucca fiber. The root can be fried, baked or mashed for a tasty, carbohydrate-rich treat. The leaves can be used as needles to sew with or paint brushes for delicate line work on pottery. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Yucca is its magical properties.
Yucca root contains a chemical called Saponin which naturally causes foam/soapiness to be created when it comes into contact with water. The Yucca root is rich in Saponin and for many years in New Mexico, up until the development of the railroad in the mid 1800’s, people used Yucca root to clean themselves, their wool, their clothing and many other things.
Here at El Rancho de las Golondrinas during our festivals, you can see how people used yucca root to clean wool for processing it into fiber, and try your hand at it as well!
Yucca is certainly one of those plants that is a fixture in the Southwest — it is hard to imagine life in New Mexico without it.