They say that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, and Mother Nature certainly did work hard to make plants for those big, empty places where it hardly ever rains. There are a host of plants that survive and thrive in the desert and semi-arid areas of the world, sending roots deep for water, or storing it from the rare times when it does rain. In gardens too there is often dryness. It may be that you live in an area with limited rainfall, or somewhere where droughts happen regularly. You may also live where watering your garden is difficult, expensive or just not possible. You may want to have a garden that doesn’t need watering – these xeric gardens have become very popular among gardeners who are sensitive to environmental issues. Or, you may simply have hot, dry spots, in poor, sand or gravel soil, that only a really tough plant can handle.
Whatever your reasons, if you are looking for plants that thrive in the driest places, then Yucca Plants are for you. These native plants of North America are not only drought-resistant, they are handsome too, with striking foliage and beautiful flowers. They solve those problem areas in your garden, while being incredibly easy to grow, and seeming to thrive on neglect.
Remarkably, although they are plants of hot, dry areas, they are hardy enough to grow in all but the very coldest gardens, and they grow well in regular garden soil too. Wherever you garden, you can enjoy them, and the unique look they bring, even if drought-tolerance is not a big priority for you.
Using Yucca Plants in Your Garden
It would be a mistake to think of Yucca Plants are just something that will grow in hot and dry areas, because they have lots to offer any garden, and appeal to any gardener. They make striking clumps of upright foliage, often with bright golden coloring, or dramatic blue effects. This effect contrasts well with rounded forms, and these plants are great for variety in beds with almost any other type of plant.
Use Yucca Plants in the front of beds, with larger shrubs behind. They look great where your beds meet a path or driveway, or in planted areas around a paved terrace. They expand into large clusters of foliage, and look good at the corners of beds too, to mark the change of direction.
The popularity of xeric gardening is enormous, and Yucca Plants are top-choices for that kind of project. You can guarantee that once established these plants will not need watering, even during extended dry periods. You can make handsome beds by mixing them with other drought-tolerant plants, and then mulching the area with gravel or small pebbles. You will never have to fuss over beds like these, and never have to spend your time watering either.
Many Yucca Plants are salt-resistant, and this, combined with their drought-resistance this makes them perfect choices for beach front homes and gardens in coastal areas.
Appearance of Yucca Plants
A Yucca Plant is a bold cluster of leaves, growing between one and three feet long, thrusting upwards in dense clumps. The stems are very short, and mostly at the soil surface or underground. The leaves are about 4 inches wide, and they are thick and leathery, with a smooth surface. Although they are plants of dry places, they don’t have the thick stems or leaves of cactus or plants like Aloe.
Instead, water is stored in the thick underground roots and stems. The central leaves of a clump are boldly upright all the way to their tip. As the leaves mature, and younger ones form in the center of the clump, the older leaves become more relaxed, leaning outwards, and sometimes bending over toward the end.
The tip of the leaf has a hard, sharp spine on it, and some varieties have fine hairs curling off the edges of the leaves. The leaves vary in color from dark green to silver blue, and some garden forms they have bold golden stripes along the edges, or in the center of the leaf. These variations in leaf patterning make for very interesting plants, which look quite different from each other, even if their parent plant is the same, or closely related.
In late summer, particularly in hot summers and hotter growing areas, a tall flower spike may grow from the center of older clump of leaves, often producing several spikes from a single older plant. These thick, leafless stems grow up between 2 and 6 feet, depending on the plant, and in the upper section flowers cluster. These often cover most of the stem, right down to the tops of the leaves. Each stem has many flowers, and the flowers are large, about two inches across. They have six petals, and they are shaped rather like tulips, only hanging upside down. Creamy-white in color, they release a rich perfume too. There is something slightly improbable about this clump of tough leaves producing such a dramatic and beautiful flowering. The flowers are edible, with an interesting slightly bitter taste, and a hint of artichoke. They can be eaten raw in salads, or quickly sautéed in a little oil.
After flowering large seed pods develop. These are up to 4 inches long, and rectangular, with a rounded end, and sometimes they are red or purple in color. These add interest as they mature, and they are also attractive in a rugged, wintery way.
Growing and Caring for Yucca Plants
Most Yucca Plants are hardy in zone 5, and many are hardy in zone 4. They grow in all the warmer zones too, even in zone 10, so they can be grown almost anywhere. They should always be planted in full sun, in any well-drained soil, and they grow in all soils, including very sandy ones. They will grow among rocks, and in gravel and poor soil, but they will not grow well at all in wet soils. When newly planted they should be watered once a week, but once established these are plants that will tolerate extended periods of dryness, and they need no additional watering.
Pests and diseases are virtually unknown on these plants, and deer and rabbits leave them alone too. The only care that may be needed is the occasional removal of dead outer leaves, and that is only a matter of tidiness in the garden, as they will naturally disintegrate in time if simply left. Flower spikes should be removed flush with the ground, as the crown of leaves that produced them will not grow after flowering. It is replaced by new shoots that come from the underground parts. No other care is needed.
Types of Yucca Plants
The plant genus Yucca contains almost 50 different species, and most of them are similar, with the same kinds of leaves and flowers. They grow over a large area, from southern Alberta in Canada, all through the southwestern states, down into Mexico and into Guatemala. They are found in Texas, all along the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as Maryland in the east. They also grow on many Caribbean islands. They grow everywhere from deserts to coastal dunes, in open woodlands, scrub, grasslands, prairies and sub-tropical regions, almost always in areas that are dry and often with low rainfall.
One fascinating aspect to Yuccas is their pollination by special moths, called yucca moths (Megathymus species). These lay an egg in each flower, pollinating them at the same time. The caterpillar develops in the seed pod, feeding on young seeds, but enough seeds are left to ensure the continuation of the wild yucca plants.
Adam’s Needle is the most common Yucca Plant found growing outdoors, called Yucca filamentosa. It grows naturally in Texas and throughout the southwest. It is easily recognized by the thin, curling threads coming of the edges of the leaves. This tough, easy-to-grow plant thrives in ordinary garden conditions, as well as on dry sites. You need look no further than this species for wonderful garden plants, for those hot, dry and difficult spots. It is usually hardy in zone 4.
There are many different forms of this plant, and although it is often seen with plain green leaves, it is the forms with colored leaves that have the most value. Three varieties of Yucca filamentosa stand out as the best:
‘Color Guard’ – This variety has a bold yellow stripe down the center of each leaf, and in colder weather the leaves may be flushed with red or pink. The leaves are exceptionally long, up to 4 feet, and make a dramatic and colorful clump in any garden.
‘Color Guard’ – This beautiful plant has leaves between 2 and 3 feet long, making it ideal for slightly smaller spaces, and the green leaf is banded on both edges by a yellow zone – the reverse patterning to ‘Color Guard’.
‘Golden Sword’ – In this form the yellow central stripe is very broad, and some leaves are completely yellow, making a very bold display. The flower spikes are unusually tall, up to 6 feet, and this variety is not quite as hardy, doing best up to zone 5.
Blue Sentry Yucca
It is not completely clear what species the Blue Sentry Yucca variety belongs to, but it probably a selection of Yucca flaccida, a species from Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. It is similar in appearance to the others, but the leaves are a striking gray-blue color, contrasting beautifully with the golden leaves of other yuccas, and looking wonderful against brightly colored walls, in the Santa Fe style, or in colorful containers.
This plant, Yucca gloriosa, grows on the sand dunes and barrier islands of the southeast. It is very similar to Yucca filamentosa, but lacks the threads along the leaves, and often has a flower spike up to 8 feet tall.
This species (Yucca elephantipes, or more correctly, Yucca gigantea) is widely grown as a houseplant, and it will also grow outdoors in zone 10. As a houseplant it is usually seen as one or three thick, upright stems, with green leaves sprouting from the top. Outdoors it grows into a large tree with an enormous trunk. The leaves do not have a spine on the tip, which is a character of this species. They make excellent houseplants for bright spots, needing very little care, and surviving long periods of neglect.
There are several plants that form clumps of narrow, upright leaves, and they are often given the common name of ‘yucca’. One of the best for gardens in hot, dry areas is the Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora). This plant loves exactly the same conditions as true Yucca Plants, but it is not closely related at all. The leaves are narrow, only about one inch wide. They do have threads coming from the edges, but there is no sharp tip on the end. Even more noticeable are the completely different flowers. These are bright red, with a pink interior, and they grow on a tall, branching flower spike up to 6 feet tall. This plant grows in areas as cold as zone 5, and of course also in all hotter zones.
For hot, dry areas in any garden, for xeric gardens, and for those who garden in dry regions, nothing beats the Yucca Plants for easy and reliable growth, combined with striking foliage and dramatic flowers. Don’t pass up this answer to the dry gardener’s prayers.