The yucca plant is native to the high deserts of the southwestern United States and Mexico. It is also found less commonly in parts of the eastern United States and West Indies. Extracts from the plant's root are used in alternative medicine as a soap and as an herbal dietary supplement. The yucca has at least 40 species, including Yucca filamentosa, the most common type, Yucca brevifolia (Joshua tree), Yucca aloifolia (Spanish bayonet), and Yucca gloriosa (Spanish dagger). Two other species, Yucca baccata and Yucca glauca, are called soap plant because their roots are especially good for making soap.
Yucca plants are tree-like succulents of the lily family (Liliaceae) with stemless stiff, pointed leaves that end in a sharp needle. The Joshua tree, the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California, is believed to have been named by Mormon settlers because the plant's angular branches resembled the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them out of the desert. The yucca flower is a series of white or purple blossoms on a long stalk.
Native American tribes in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico found numerous uses for the yucca, dating back hundreds of years. Several tribes, including the Western Apaches on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, use the plant today. The most common use seems to be for hygiene. Roots of the yucca baccata are pounded to remove extracts that are made into shampoo and soap. The Apaches also use yucca leaf fibers to make dental floss and rope. Historically, Western Apaches mixed ground juniper berries with yucca fruit to make a gravy. They also made a fermented drink from juniper berries and yucca fruit pounded to a pulp and soaked in water. Other Native American groups used yucca soap to treat dandruff and hair loss.
Native Americans also used yucca plants for a variety of other non-medical purposes, including making sandals, belts, cloth, baskets, cords, and mats. Such uses can still be found today among Hopi, Papago, and Ute Indians. The Zuni used a mixture of soap made from yucca sap and ground aster to wash newborn babies to stimulate hair growth. Navajos would tie a bunch of yucca fibers together and use it as a brush for cleaning metates.
The primary medical use of yucca is to treat arthritis and joint pain and inflammation. Native Americans used sap from the leaves in poultices or baths to treat skin lesions, sprains, inflammation, and bleeding. Teas made from yucca mixed together with other herbs are still brewed by folk healers in northern New Mexico to treat asthma and headaches. Constituents of the yucca are used today to treat people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The plant's medical properties are found in saponins, precursors of cortisone, which prevent the release of toxins from the intestines that restrict normal cartilage formation. Saponins are produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands. It is believed yucca works best for arthritis when taken over an extended period of time.
A number of commercial uses for yucca extract have been found, including adding it to root beer, alcoholic beer, and cocktail mixers as a foaming agent. The bittersweet dark brown extract is also used as an additive in ice cream and other foods.
The extract of the Yucca schidigera (Mojave or Mo-have yucca) is also used as an additive in natural pet foods. It is reported to speed up bowel elimination, reduce fecal and urine odor, and improve digestion in dogs and cats. It can also be added to pet food as a spray or drops. Several studies also show that when added to animal feed, Yucca schidigera extract can reduce noxious ammonia
gas in the waste products of poultry, pigs, cows, and horses. A decrease in ammonia levels can increase egg production in chickens and milk production in dairy cattle.
Ken R. Wells, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,