Both Soft Leaf Yuccas (Yucca recurvifolia) and Red Yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora) are popular plants in Denton County and the surrounding areas. They can be seen in pastures, along roadsides in mass plantings, and home landscapes. There are many reasons these two plants are prevalent in Texas. They are very drought and heat tolerant perennials, but neither are bothered by our intermittent cold snaps. They are native to the Chihuahua Desert of Mexico and West Texas but have heartily adapted to the higher rainfall of North Central Texas. They enjoy living in full Texas sun but will accept partially shaded conditions as well. Once established, they will prosper only on the natural rainfall, requiring no additional irrigation. In fact, you really should protect them from sprinklers as too much water will kill them off quicker than the bad guy in an old Western. They have striking, yet wildly different, appearances.
Soft Leaf Yucca, Yucca recurvifolia, is a true Yucca and is named for its blue-green, strap-like leaves that recurve gracefully. The leaves have slightly, but not dangerously, sharp edges, so have a care if you run your fingers along them. They grow in a bold rosette form. Over time, Soft Leaf Yuccas can reach eight feet tall by six feet wide so make sure your give these statuesque lovelies the room they will need. This is one plant that does not look right when it is pruned! It is a moderate grower, so plan ahead especially if you are using them in a mass planting or as a screen – they don’t look pretty all jammed together either. If you are in an area where grass fires are a concern or where houses are built quite closely together, Soft Leaf Yuccas are considered a suitable fire-wise choice for landscape planting. They have such a strong architectural quality that they make excellent specimen plants. They play well with others in a landscape as long as the Soft Leaf Yuccas are not drowned by other plants’ water needs. If salty soil or water is a concern, these plants are pretty salt-tolerant also. Planted with other Texas natives and perennials, evergreen Soft Leaf Yuccas can really anchor a landscape. Remember to always consider water and light requirements for your plants and group them accordingly for best performance.
As architecturally striking as Soft Leaf Yuccas are all year, they really show off in the heat of summer when they produce a three-foot to five-foot-tall flower spike. The creamy white blooms come at a time when not much else is in bloom and their delightful fragrance is a boon to flower lovers! If you co-exist with deer, be aware that those four-legged friends enjoy snacking on the blooms, but not the leaves of Soft Leaf Yuccas. As the blooms fade, the stalks should be removed at the base.
The Native Plant Society of Texas’ website mentioned that Native Americans used native yuccas in a variety of ways. Referencing the book, Texas Trees – a Friendly Guide by Paul Cox and Patty Leslie, NPSOT reports indigenous peoples used the trunks for building stockades and the leaves for thatching shelters. Yucca flowers were eaten either raw or cooked and sometimes pickled. The roots can be used to make soap, and in some areas, fibers from the leaves are still used to make rope, twine, and other products.
Our so-called Red Yucca only masquerades as a Yucca. Some of its characteristics are yucca-like (leaves, fruit, and seeds), but others are not (the tubular flowers), so a new genus was created by Missourian George Englemann in 1871 – Hesperaloe. Red Yuccas, a member of the Agave family, are actually Hesperaloe parviflora – showcasing the importance of knowing botanical names. Hesperaloe translates from Latin as “Western” plus “aloe” while parviflora means “small flowers.” Hesperaloe parviflora was moved to the new genus officially in 1894. Red Yuccas can grow up to five feet tall by four feet wide but are usually in the two to three feet range. Like the Soft Leaf Yuccas, they enjoy full sun or partial shade and are highly drought, heat, and cold tolerant. Red Yuccas have adapted to a variety of soils, but prefer drier, well-drained soil, so take care to not overwater.
The stiff, long, spear-like leaves grow from a woody rosette base in a clump that slowly expands over time. Leaves are ever “green” – they turn from dark olive green, grey-green, or blue-green in warmer weather to a dark plum color in winter. The leaves have white, threadlike hairs along the edges and a sharp, pointy end. These architecturally striking plants need plenty of room to grow without pruning, like their Soft Leaf friends. Plant them at least two to three feet from sidewalks, driveways, and structures. The leaf ends can be slightly spiky, so you don’t want them where people may brush against them. Friction will cause the leaf ends to fray and be unattractive, as well. They are long-lived plants that work well in large pots (with drain holes in the bottom!) or in rock or perennial gardens with well-draining soil.
Red Yuccas produce dramatic arching, pinkish flower stems that can be quite long. The reddish-coral hued tubular flowers appear between March and July, often later. They draw pollinating hummingbirds and night-pollinating moths – and deer, which eat both the foliage and flowers. The black, inch-long seeds grow in interesting tri-lobed pods that add to Red Yuccas’ visual interest. The seeds can be planted to increase your numbers or be used as bird food. Pups, or baby Red Yuccas, grow at the base of the plants and can be carefully broken off, allowed to cure for a few days like other succulents, then planted in pots or beds.
You may also see these plants with buttery yellow flowers – this occurs naturally and is not a man-made hybrid. What a beautiful addition to your landscape! They are not as easily found in nurseries as the coral-red ones, so nab it when you see it! There are, however, several hybrid cultivars that have been developed by a nursery in Arizona. For a listing of some of these, as well as photos, refer to Neil Sperry’s article from a 2019 newsletter here: https://neilsperry.com/2019/05/red-yuccas-rule/
As we sit inside during the winter cold contemplating changes or additions to our landscapes, I urge you to consider using Soft Leaf Yucca or Red (or yellow! Or one of the hybrids!) Yucca/Hesperaloe in your gardens. Spring will be here before we know it! Happy Planning!
Texas SmartScape, “Yucca, Softleaf”: http://www.txsmartscape.com/plant-search/plant-details.php?id=929
Texas A&M AgriLife, “Top 100 Plants for North Texas”: https://cdn-ext.agnet.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/top-100-plants-for-north-texas.pdf
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Backyard Gardener, “Red Yucca: Drought tolerant and Colorful”: https://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/archive/hesperaloe.html
Neil Sperry’s Gardens, “Red Yuccas Rule!”: https://neilsperry.com/2019/05/red-yuccas-rule/
University of Arkansas, System Division of Agriculture, “Plant of the Week, Red Yucca”: https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/yucca-red-7-9-10.aspx