Hardy yucca plants have many uses

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Soapweed

When hiking in the dry lands of Eastern Montana you are likely to come across a yucca plant.

The yucca is green all year. It has sharp, pointed leaves, and in the summer grows a long stalk with a large white flower on the end.

Some of its other names include Spanish bayonet and dagger plant, probably because of the sharp leaves.

Native Americans used the tough leaves to create fibers and make string or ropes. It could also be weaved into baskets, fish nets and even sandals. The leaves were also chewed into finer strands to be used as paintbrushes for decorating pottery.

The flowers can be eaten. The book “Edible Wild Plants and Useful Herbs” says the flowers can be cooked in olive oil and added to an omelet. The young seed pods can be stir fried. Or the flowers can be added raw to a salad.

One of the unique uses of the yucca plant is to make soap. In fact, the plant is also known as soapweed.

To make soap the plant’s roots are dug up, cleaned off and pounded into a pulp. When the pulp is mixed with water it creates a foaming soap. That’s because the roots contain a chemical called saponin, the same chemical used in detergents and foam fire extinguishers. Because it makes a foam, yucca is also listed as an ingredient in Shasta Root Beer.

It’s hard to believe a plant that lives in such a dry environment can have so many uses. How did people figure out that the root could be used as a soap? Our ancestors were pretty smart, creative and handy.

The next time you see a yucca plant, admire it for how hardy it is, as well as how many ways that it can be used.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com


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