wild edible plants

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

Banana yucca DimmittYuccas are one of the iconic plants of the desert. There are about 15 species with names such as Spanish bayonet, soap tree yucca, banana yucca, bear grass, and Joshua trees. Native American people used yuccas extensively for food, fiber, and soap.

Yuccas can be distinguished from agaves by their thin leaves which are semi-succulent to non-succulent as opposed to the fatter succulent agave leaves. Also, yuccas send up stalks almost every year, while agaves produce a stalk only once then die.

Western yuccas range from semi-arid grasslands, the northern Great Plains, through woodlands, and dry tropics of Mexico. One species occurs in the southeastern U.S. and West Indies.

All western species of yuccas are pollinated by moths; the eastern species is pollinated by bees. Both yucca and moths have evolved to depend upon each other and have a symbiotic relationship. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, yucca “blossoms need pollen from a different plant to produce a seed, and it must be packed into a deep receptacle on the stigma, an event that could not occur by chance visitation. The moth is equally dependent on the yucca. It lays eggs on each pollinated ovary, and the hatched larvae eat some of the developing seeds.”


banana yucca fruit Erin WillettFlowers, flower stalks, seeds, and squash-like fruit are edible, raw or cooked. The fruit of the banana yucca (Yucca baccata) was especially favored. The pulp from the fruit was, after cooking, often pounded and sun-dried, then shaped into cakes that could be stored for winter use. It can also be used as a substitute for apples. Yucca pie anyone?

The roots of the Mohave yucca (Yucca schidigera) were used to provide a foaming agent in root beer.


Pounding the leaves to remove soft tissue frees tough fibers that were used to make rope, mats, clothing, sandals, nets, and mattresses. The thin leaves of some yuccas, such as Joshua tree and the bear grass varieties were stripped and soaked to make them pliable, then woven into baskets. Upon drying, the leaves become very hard.


The roots of some species, particularly the soap tree yucca (Yucca elata) contain saponin, a soap-like chemical. According to Cornett, “Pounding the roots in water produces copious suds. Indians used these suds to wash their hair and clothes, and for ritual cleansing in ceremonies.”

The stems of the Mohave yucca are used for livestock deodorant.



A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press.

Cornett, James, 2011, Indian Uses of Desert Plants, Nature Trails Press.

Kirk, D.R., 1970, Wild Edible Plants of the Western United States, Naturegraph publishers.

Medsger, O.P., 1966, Edible Wild Plants, Collier-Macmillan Limited.

See also:

Agave, a plant of many uses

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

chiletpen1b from southwest cookingThe pea-sized chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) is thought to be the ancestral plant of all chili peppers. It is native to Arizona, Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Central and South America. The chiltepin plant is a bush that grows up to four feet tall and it prefers well-drained sandy soil.

 Chiltepins are very hot and the heat is said to be quick, intense, but not long-lasting compared to some other hot peppers. The heat is due to the chemical capsaicin which is an irritant to chemoreceptors in the skin and mucus membranes in mammals. How hot? The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers. The amount of capsaicin in a particular plant depends on growing conditions, therefore, the Scoville scale presents a range of hotness. For comparison, Poblano peppers range from 1,000-2,500 Scoville units; Jalapeños range from 3,500 to 8.000; Serrano peppers range from 10,000-23,000; Cayenne and Tabasco peppers range from 30,000 to 50,000, Chiltepins range from 50,000 to 100,000; and the Habanero ranges from 100,000 to 350,000. Pepper spray, used for defense comes in at 5 million. (Pure capsaicin is 16 million on the scale.)

The chiltepin pepper is a fruit that seeks to disperse its seeds to reproduce. Why then would it make its fruit unpalatable to many animals that might disperse the seeds? The answer is that the chiltepin is selective. Mammals have the chemoreceptors that make capsaicin irritating; mammals also have big teeth that can crush the seeds. Birds, on the other hand, lack teeth to crush the seeds and lack the chemoreceptors and are therefore immune to the irritation. Birds eat the peppers and deposit the seeds (with a little fertilizer) away from the original plant.

By the way, capsaicin is neutralized by animal fat. So, if a pepper is too hot for you, drink some whole milk or eat some butter or sour cream.

Chiltepins have long been used by native people to spice food and as a food preservative. Chiltepins were also used medicinally. The capsaicin is an antibacterial agent. The Pima Bajo people used chiltepins to relieve stomach disorders. The Mayo Indians mixed chiltepin leaves with alcohol to make a liniment for rheumatism. The Tarahumara Indians chewed the fruit with other plants for headache. Apparently capsaicin, when eaten, causes the brain to release endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Today, of course, you can buy capsaicin creams in the drug stores for topical pain relief.

Chiltepins have a good flavor; I prefer them when they are green. But if you try them, be prepared for the intense heat.