Monday, March 12, 2012

Yuccas Grandes

Yucca is New Mexico's state flower, but our state didn't specify which yucca, as I noted in a past New Mexico Magazine interview. Most towns in NM have at least one species of yucca nearby - good call!

The official New Mexico state act (p. 2 / A) - here.

As with oaks, Mexico also has the US beat on yucca species diversity. I'll concentrate on some taller yuccas found in Albuquerque & points south:

Such as that monster Soaptree, on the Chihuahuan desert grassland north of Carrizozo, one cold November morning.

Below are just a few examples that make bold, evergreen landscape statements in many towns in the Desert Southwest, from Las Vegas to Abq to El Paso to Carlsbad, and even beyond the desert. However, in places with less sophistication, their commonality often gets them far less respect than they deserve, certainly poor design use, and sometimes removal. Weird, since in Albuquerque or El Paso, they look green and happy on 6-10" of average yearly rainfall.

Yet with countless tree yuccas in our landscapes for a century, one even native, some folks still ask, "but are they hardy?' I bet they don't ask that about aspens, bluegrass or photinias. Time to turn off their water!

Tree yuccas are the palms of the high deserts. Some are even called "palmilla" in Spanish!

Palm or Faxon Yucca / Yucca faxoniana or Y. carnerosana - ever-common (Albuquerque's Four Hills area):

Old and happy. It's native to uplands and a few lower elevation areas in the Chihuahuan Desert, from desert scrub to desert grassland to pinon-juniper-oak areas.

An Albuquerque landscape designer I used to know, once told me how in the early 1970's, a plant digger who sold to the landscape company he co-owned, noted his interest in bringing up some palm yuccas to try out. So, he did - the rest is history.

At one of the countless car lots on Central Ave in Abq:

I bet there are more of those planted in Abq - and now Arizona cities - than are left in Trans Pecos Texas. A shame their native plant protection laws are as weak and unenforced as NM's. But there's hope.

Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in AZ is again disproving false myths about growing desert plants from seed, over collecting them from ranches or the wild. The Y. faxoniana near the sound wall were planted from 15 gallon sizes, forming trunks at the time of this photo, just 2 years later. April - I-40 and Louisiana in Abq:

Wild-collected plants (palm yucca, other tree yuccas, ocotillos, pinons, etc) have a 50% survival rate from my observations and numerous contractor experiences, and they usually take years to re-root and begin to grow. They often look rough from handling and transportation.

Seed-grown plants have over a 90% survival rate, and they start growing once planted from the container, growing 12-18" a year..sometimes faster. They look larger and usually exhibit little damage; also do not tend to come with the dreaded agave snout weevil, which wild-collected, broadleaf yuccas often come with. (fortunately, most narrowleaf yuccas do not seem to be affected by them)

Though in desert cities, with all the cheap, collected accent plants used, the weevils are still around. Nothing is perfect, but seed-grown nursery yuccas are win-win.

So there!

Outlaw bikers might also prefer seed-grown Yucca faxoniana, and you don't want to chap their hides:

I bet he's mad now. The City or their contractor recently killed most of them by skinning the protective skirts of dead, dried foliage insulation from the trunks, and then came the 2/11 freeze...that's a future post.

Ahh, late April in Burque. All in bloom! (Supper Rock, Albuquerque):

Torrey Yucca / Yucca torreyi - old, big and happy, this clump topping out at about 20' tall (Nob Hill in Abq):

It is a Chihuahuan Desert native, and it really makes a statement in the rocky uplands of Trans Pecos Texas up to Carlsbad, and above southern NM's valleys. In it's native range, tall, lean and mean (Las Cruces NM):

Mountain Yucca / Yucca schottii (Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, Cochise County AZ):

Mountain Yucca is from the madrean oak savannas and woodlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, which extend to the Catalina Mtns above Tucson. That yucca is known to be hardy to cooler, damper climes, as in USDA Z 6 in southern New England. So, Mountain Yucca may be the one to try if you are in wetter, but not too cold of a climate.

Mojave Yucca / Yucca schidigera (near Red Rock Canyon and Las Vegas NV):

Joshua Tree / Yucca brevifolia (Sandia Heights, Albuquerque foothills), but it is an endemic Mojave Desert species:

A young joshua (NE Albuquerque medians):

Nice, waxy blooms:

An oddly-formed joshua that blooms early, mid-March (NE Abq):

Another view of the same, irregular-formed Joshua Tree:

Soaptree / Yucca elata is another Chihuahuan Desert tree yucca, and it happens to be the only tree yucca native in the Albuquerque area and the middle Rio Grande valley of central New Mexico:

Mid-May at the I-10 rest area leaving Arizona, entering NM.

I recall Soaptree first occuring on the mesas west of Sanderson TX, then more where it nicely defines the Marfa Plateau and on to past Silver City, going all the way to Tucson, the Verde Valley of central AZ, and north to Santa Rosa and just north of Abq in NM. The largest ones are west of Deming NM, and Danger Garden posted on those - here. (but of course!) It is as common as roadrunners and chile in Abq and Las Cruces landscapes, but there are many nice ones in Las Vegas NV, too. I even saw an OK-looking one in Kerrville TX, plus some small ones in metro Denver and Boulder, and a really large Soaptree clump in summer-hot Pueblo, Colorado.

They grow fast, but rarely transplant from wild-dug plants. Seed grown, 5 gallon soaptrees grow trunks within 3 years in Abq, reaching 10' in 10 years, or less. Some nurseries sell 15 gallon ones, for a head-start.

A young one at a home (the sandy Abq west mesa):

There are a number of weird forms of Soaptree, such as with foliage lining the trunk (NE Abq):

And this is the weirdest Soaptree, with such small foliage heads (Abq near the State Fairgrounds):

A common, more compact form (UNM in Albuquerque):
And they get tall, this one probably over 40 years old (NE Abq) [note - unless it's a Y. rostrata form?] :

Tough enough? (Central, SW Abq)

Soaptrees often grow along guardrails, escaping roadside mowing (a wild soaptree, Comanche in NE Abq):
And another Soaptree (near UNM in Abq):

Flower towers:
Nice flower petal litter, a surprise waking up to this at our motel, on the way back home (Carlsbad NM):
And back to Las Cruces, the Mecca of Soaptree, and the incredible Organ Mtns at sunset:
(I was listening to Cake's "Comfort Eagle" that magical May evening, the high, dry desert air blowing into my car windows)

Blue Yucca / Yucca rigida is native where the Ay-Chihuahuan Desert and Madrean ecoregions meet. Very uncommon in gardens, but I see it in Abq some, and this nice specimen in Las Vegas NV:

In a lush garden in Phoenix AZ:

And a 3-4 year-young Blue Yucca in Abq at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden (theirs' now have trunks, taller than me):

Yuccas are most spectacular with xeric grasses and wildflowers to soften their bases, like that Chocolate Flower.

Beaked Yucca / Yucca rostrata, the again-popular Chihuahuan Desert native. (near the NM State Fairgrounds in Abq):

An older one (50 years old?), growing along a parking area (E of UNM in Albuquerque):

A Beaked Yucca thriving at 6,000' elevation (Sandia Heights, far NE Abq):

Yet another one, happier than my class was on a 102F, humid afternoon at the beginning of the monsoon season (Abq):

A Beaked Yucca with the skirt trimmed to evoke a more tropical effect, especially with the Sago underneath (Nob Hill area, Abq):

Me, tagging some seed-grown specimens for my design at a Central New Mexico Community College landscape design project in Abq (Mountain States' high elevation Cochise AZ yard, 2/2003):

Soft and sharp at former boss' home (Sandia Heights, Abq):

Beaked yuccas are like many people, the good ones improving with age (Las Cruces):

New Mexico and other desert southwest locales grow some amazing tree yuccas. But...

Do you hear me speak of allowing ample room for plants to mature? This is the largest Beaked Yucca I know of in cultivation, in Fort Stockton TX. It was spotted by my Arizona friend Dan Goodspeed, standing under it for scale. Yes, some things are bigger in Texas...

This specimen is recognized as the National Champion, though it is named "Yucca thompsoniana" - here.

But while everyone from Texas to Southern California argues who has the best sunsets, the nicest climate, and probably even the largest tree yuccas, New Mexico has everyone beat on the largest roadrunner! And as anyone who has traveled to the slightest depth in my region will attest, yuccas go hand-in-hand with chile....and a certain bird.

Paisano Pete in Fort Stockton TX - cute, refined:

Las Cruces NM on I-10 - this is a big roadrunner. Paisano Pete might come up to the belly of this one in southern NM, but probably not any taller. Made of roadside trash, it pays homage to - yes - NM's state bird (p. 2 / B) - here:
So, where and how could you use tree yuccas in your garden or designs?

I'll post more in the future, including great ways to use them.

And perhaps I'll add a few more taller yuccas, over 6' tall, that also grow well in Abq and other Desert SW towns, including:
Spanish Bayonet / Yucca aloifolia
Arizona Yucca / Yucca baccata var. thornberi
Palma China / Yucca decipiens
Mound-Lily / Yucca gloriosa
Thompson Yucca / Yucca thompsoniana


  1. Oh, my. I don't think I'll still be around, if or when our Yucca rostrata gets THAT big!
    Those are fun to see so big.
    Thanks again for the tour, and the lesson.

    1. Fortunately, most Y. rostrata don't seem to get over 10-12', especially outside the natural range. The one in Ft Stockton is scary! You're welcome.

  2. I love every post, but i think that was my all time fav...

    1. Thanks! I thought you might like ones on tree yuccas, especially trying them up in ID and having them around in AZ.

  3. David, this article is amazing. Decades worth of learning you've passed on.

    PLEASE submit this to the right magazines.... Do an E-book....

    Congrats on this post. It's humbling. I clap, bow, hoorahhh, and toast. Of course, from here, the champagne is all mine.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    1. Thanks...and just when I think I learn, I meet other people and plants with even more to learn from!

      Great idea...worth a shot to put this out there.

  4. Wonderful post here, David! I had no idea there were so many species of tree-type yuccas. Rarely see them here in the Denver area, but I know of one right in my own urb/suburb neighborhood: Y.elata, I believe. Really stunning when it's in bloom. Happy spring!

    1. Thanks so much - yes, many tree yuccas, plus I added a few other tall yuccas we can do in Abq at the end of this post. There are even others, but they are more for warmer places.

      The first tree yuccas I recall in Denver are the Y. elata clumps at the I-70 exit E of Wadsworth, 1-2 miles?

  5. I think many of the large Yuccas today came out of Black Gap before it became a Wildlife Management Area. There are still Yucca rostratas everywhere. Not so much Yucca faxoniana. I've got three Yucca faxoniana and two large(8to 10 feet) Yucca rostrata all seed grown and collected in 1994. My Y. faxoniana are 5 to 7 feet. I named one "Bubba". I've noticed Yucca thompsoniana is much slower growing but a more reliable bloomer. Yucca recurvifolia the most common here. Nice post and Thanks!

    1. Interesting on the locale - someone told me on a drive somewhere in far west TX a few years ago, the stunning sunset he was expecting was different...a noticeable lack of the ocotillo and yucca outlines in the distance.

      You have some nice ones - yes, Y. thompsoniana is really something in bloom with all those small heads, and it is used everywhere in Abq.

  6. Never knew there were so many varieties.

    1. The array of tree yuccas is simply dizzying, and those is just the ones we can grow where we get some winter in zone 7-8a. (Carlsbad is where some yuccas from Texas and NE Mexico mix with those from the Desert SW)

      In the low deserts like Phoenix, or milder but still dry places like San Diego or Mexico's Sierra Madre, there are many more.

  7. Love all your yuccas, and that one specimen beaked yucca plant--wow, how impressed can I get? It's interesting to see the various plant maintenance styles. Some seem compelled to pull off anything that looks like a dead leaf, but the ones that have plant's lifetime of accumulation are stunning. I'll have to key out the yucca in my back yard. It's so common around here I haven't bothered to find out its name.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! The maintenance variation is quite stunning (some sad), as it is with palms.

      I wonder if your common one is Yucca elephantipes (like Y. gloriosa, but more tender and taller)? I recall that all over SD, especially in neighborhoods older than the 60's.

      In case you didn't see this garden -

      (the first photos show just how nice tree yuccas from the desert SW look in coastal So Cal, with plants that don't have a prayer in our winters or summers)

    2. Right after I wrote my comment I went off and looked at some photos and decided that, yes, the yucca in my garden was indeed elephantipes. There was also a plant of it in the house I grew up in in the LA area, again courtesy of the former owners.

  8. Yuccas would add a lot to the local scenery. If I could I would eliminate 25 percent of all palms of any kind in our urban context, using these instead.

    Their rare beauty, is more attractive to my eyes tha dull, abused palms, not to get into maintenance.

    Excellent post...

    1. I agree with you. I wonder how many tropical yuccas (and yucca relatives) there are in the Caribbean basin, plus some SW desert yuccas that would like urban sites there? I bet it is many.

      Gracias, Dr. Cajan!

  9. I first read this yesterday and then again last night, but for some reason my computer wouldn't let me comment then.

    As others have said what a fabulous article! So much info and wonderful pictures. I must admit when I read the sign at the rest-stop near Lordsburg when it mentioned the Yucca is the NM state flower I found myself wondering "But which yucca"...nice to think that the designation was not made in order to remain inclusive of all. Of course your noting that the Agave weevil often comes with wild collected Yucca's has me a little nervous since I brought home several from my in-laws in TorC and one from along the highway (don't tell anyone). Yikes!

    1. Hola, Danger!

      Weevil - I will clarify on the post that the "evil weevils" tend to only affect broadleaf yuccas, especially Y. faxoniana/carnerosana, Y. torreyi, as well as Hesperaloe funifera and some agaves. So I bet you will be fine!

      Glad you enjoyed the obvious, but oft-disdained treasure of my region.

    2. Thank you! Only collected Y. elata & Y. glauca, no broad leaves there...

  10. Nice list of Yuccas here! We have several in Tucson but nothing majestic like you have in New Mexico or in Southern California. We have several Yuccas that are large but they are in private gardens around town. And the roadrunner statues are really fun....that would be awesome to have in our center courtyard...but somehow I don't the neighbors would like it so much:)

    1. I guess Tucson makes up for a lack of yuccas with saguaros. Just hope that big one in Las Cruces doesn't decide to run west...

      I bet the neighbors would object!

  11. These are so amazing! Your list is so detailed. Where could I use them? I had thought about adding palms for height in front of the garage. These are a better choice, but I need to shop around a bit. At retail a large yucca is very pricey.

    The roadrunner sculptures are cool too.

    1. Yes, and there are even more, as they say!

      For you, try 15 gallon size, as they grow fast if nursery-grown and not dug. You might only need 1 or 2, then underplant w/ grasses or flowering plant mass?

      From this post - Y. rostrata, Y. thompsoniana, Y. faxoniana (Y. aloifolia OK, but prob common), Y. decipiens. Not on this list, but good - Y. treculeana (looks like Y. torreyi, but not as tall and more even foliage...native in your region).

  12. I love this post! A neighbor just gave me one of those smaller footprint yuccas -you called it "wierdest soaptree yucca" in your post - motel in the background. I wish I knew the name and how big they get a maturity...have you seen them at "full-size" since this post? I am thinking to the right of my front front of the post behind the planter. But I don't want to poke anyones' eyes out! What do ya think?

    1. Thanks - glad you found it in all the other posts. All the soaptrees I've seen, get to at least 8' tall, though many make it to near 15'. Loree / Danger Garden has a post of the I-10 "Yucca Highway" from last fall, I think, and that area between Tucson AZ and Deming NM has loads of 15-20' soaptrees.

      Give it 5' minimum, on-center, from the edge of any paving...then soften the base with something (you like grasses, and that would match it nicely).

    2. Followed your advice again David! :) Check it out when you have a minute ...

    3. My invoice is in the mail - just kidding! Can't wait to check it out - you get more done in your garden in 1 week than I do in 1 month.

  13. oh no....I needed to get it in ground...I totally planted it in the wrong place. oopsie! I know what i am doing tomorrow!;) thanks David!


Thanks for visiting! I try responding to comments within a few days, though my day job can call. Comments now require word-verification, thanks to evil spammers...