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Yucca: A Resilient Garden Plant and a Delicious Vegetable

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Yucca: A Resilient Garden Plant and a Delicious Vegetable

There are a myriad criteria when selecting plants to populate a garden or cultivated landscape: resilience, form, texture, multi-seasonal interest in terms of foliage, flowers, and fruit—and, for kitchen gardeners, cooks, and backyard foragers, is it edible? As summer begins to assert itself, yucca, readying to display its statuesque floral appeal, is reminding us that it checks every box. And several more. The developing flowering stem of yucca resembles an enormous asparagus stalk, and when it branches into a multitude of buds, each plant is transformed into a luminous floral candelabra, loved by pollinators, hummingbirds, and humans.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Yucca in bloom in Brooklyn, New York.

Where I live in the Northeast, the regionally conspicuous yucca is Yucca filamentosa. It is used extensively in urban parks and public gardens and has spread to grow wild along shorelines, in old dunes, in pine barrens, and in sunny fields. Native to the Southeastern United States, this yucca has naturalized well beyond its native region. It is impressively hardy, down to USDA zone 4 (where it may need some protection from winter winds).

Above: Naturalized, feral Y. filamentosa on the edges of Jamaica Bay, New York.

On the plant walks that I lead, it never fails to surprise people that this sharp plant is not a denizen of the desert (although it has many desert—as well as tropical—yucca relatives through the Americas).

Above: The telltale filaments of Y. filamentosa.

The species—filamentosa—tells us something about the plant: it refers to the hair-like fibers that fray from each spiked leaf.

Above: A variegated horticultural cultivar is Y. filamentosa ‘Color Guard’
Above: Smart planting allows the leaf-swords of yucca to glow when backlit.

Despite growing happily in the rain-rich Northeast, Y. filamentosa has yet another quality to recommend it to horticulturists. It is water-wise. This is a resilient plant, requiring no additional irrigation once established. And there’s more: Those stabbing leaf-points are a natural deterrent where one might be needed, in public or private plantings; think of it as a botanical porcupine, or a living security plant. People (and deer!) keep their distance. There are other bonuses, for either the just-plain-curious or for the survival-obsessed: Yucca’s leaves provide cordage, and the dry flower stalks can help you make fire. It’s pounded root could help you poison and catch fish. It’s a plant for the apocalypse. But that’s another story…

Above: Cool white yucca flowers—eat the petals; the anthers and pistil are bitter.

Speaking of the root: In terms of eating yucca, there is a hurdle, and it is semantic: Yucca is not yuca.

Yuca (also called cassava and manioc) is the tuber of the tropical Manihot esculenta. It is sold in the produce section of many groceries. It is sometimes also spelled yucca, which can confuse matters for people still learning to speak Plant.

Above: Edible summer flowers—yucca (left), southern magnolia, and daylilies – fresh and day-old.

Most sources cite the open blooms and the unripe seedpods of yucca as the main food-parts of the plants. The flower petals taste mild, like tender iceberg lettuce, as long as the bitter reproductive parts are removed. They are eaten traditionally after boiling and cooking, but I prefer their sparing use in salad.

Above: A shoreline salad of sea rocket, lettuce, cooked common milkweed pods, and yucca flowers.
Above: Shaved, pickled carrots and radishes, with yucca blossoms and chile.
Above: Yucca seedpods.

If you catch them while they are still tender, yucca’s green, unripe seedpods are an interesting vegetable.

Above: The inner beauty of a yucca seedpod.

To be eaten, yucca pods must be juicy inside, the seeds white and soft and immature, and all traces of green skin peeled off, or the pods are inedibly bitter. Traditional preparation involves roasting them slowly, and I have not tried this. Instead, I peel the pods, blanch them in boiling water, and then pickle them. The bitterness left in the traces of green probably indicates the remnants of saponins that all yuccas contain—they are heat-sensitive and water-soluble.

Saponins are a phyto-compound that many plants (like asparagus, legumes and quinoa) use as a biological defence. They are water-soluble and heat-sensitive, hence the blanching and cooking.

Above: Pickled yucca pods after blanching and brining—the green traces are bitter.
Above: The flower buds and young flower stem of Y. filamentosa.

And while the flowers and pods are fine to eat, yucca produces early summer’s exceptional seasonal delicacy: that tender, asparagus-luscious stem. Just over a decade ago, a dip into one of my plant bibles (whose price has since turned stratospheric), Native American Food Plants, An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, compiled by Daniel Moerman, gave me a tantalizing clue: Y. whipplei stalks (even fatter than filamentosa’s) were cooked and eaten by several Native American nations. I eyed the next early summer’s yucca stalks very appreciatively. They really did look like fat asparagus. Which makes sense because, wait for it, yuccas belong to Asparagaceae family.

Since then, a modest-sized treat of cooked yucca shoots (which is how I refer to these apical meristems), has been an early summer ritual. They have the texture of asparagus, a distinct sweetness, and a unique flavor of their own.

Above: Select yucca stalks that have not begun to branch.

Like asparagus, edible yucca stalks should be snappable. This indicates that they are still actively growing and very tender.

Above: I soak yucca shoots overnight.
Above: The darker green bracts can be bitter. Snap them off, like preparing a globe artichoke.
Above: Peeling tender yucca stems before blanching.
Above: Peeling is not essential, but traces of bitterness in the green skin can be removed this way. After blanching the stems are sweet.
Above: After blanching, the tender shoots cooked à la Grecque, with bayberry, bay leaf, coriander and garlic.
Above: Blanched for 5 minutes, served cool, with ramp leaf aioli for dipping.

Once they are prepared and blanched until tender, yucca shoots are versatile. Make old-fashioned, new-fashioned tea sandwiches by layering yucca shoots with mayo and egg in sandos, on shokupan (Japanese milk bread. (Or, while you’re waiting for the special bread pans that you ordered to bake shokupan to arrive, substitute un-ironic Wonderbread!)

Above: Yucca flower shoots in a marinated chicken salad.

Marinated Chicken and Yucca Shoot Salad

Serves 2

Use leftover roast chicken to toss together this brightly tangy summer salad (or poach and cool a couple of skinless thighs). If the yucca shoots have already developed a leafy bract under individual clusters of buds on each stalk, those bracts will be bitter – after blanching, pull them off and discard

  • 3 yucca shoots (immature flowering stalks), washed, lower stems peeled
  • 2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons sumac
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper, lots
  • 1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
  • 6 boiled baby potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 mint leaves, slivered

For the yucca shoots: Bring a pot of water to a boil and drop the shoots into it. Boil for 4 – 5 minutes. The shoots should be tender when pierced with a knife at the thickest part. Drain, refresh in cold water, and roll dry in a clean kitchen towel. Cut the yucca into bite-size pieces.

For the vinaigrette: In a small bowl mix together the vinegar, sugar, salt, sumac, and pepper, and stir until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Add the onions and stir well. Leave for at least 5 minutes to macerate.

To assemble: In a larger bowl toss together the chicken, potato, and onion, then add the cooked yucca. Finally, drizzle the oil over the mixture, and add the fresh mint. Toss gently one more time. It is ready.

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Frequently asked questions

What are some recipes that use yucca shoots?

Some recipes that use yucca shoots include yucca shoot stir fry, yucca shoot soup, and yucca shoot salad.

How can I prepare yucca shoots for cooking?

To prepare yucca shoots for cooking, start by removing any tough outer layers. Trim the shoots into bite-sized pieces and rinse them thoroughly to remove any dirt or debris. Boil the shoots in salted water for a few minutes until they become tender. Drain and use them in your desired recipe.

Are yucca shoots edible?

Yes, yucca shoots are edible. They are commonly used in various cuisines, especially in Asian and Latin American dishes.

What are some recipes that use asparagus?

Some recipes that use asparagus include roasted asparagus with lemon, asparagus soup, asparagus risotto, and grilled asparagus.

How should I store asparagus?

To store asparagus, trim about an inch from the bottom of the stalks. Place them upright in a jar or glass filled with a small amount of water, and cover the tops loosely with a plastic bag. Store the asparagus in the refrigerator, and they should stay fresh for up to a week.

How do I know if asparagus is fresh?

Fresh asparagus should have firm and plump stalks with tightly closed tips. The color should be vibrant green or purple, depending on the variety. Avoid asparagus that appears wilted, limp, or has dry or mushy stalks.

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