Often when I’m out on a group hike, we come across plants that some are surprised to see in Arkansas. One of those plants is yucca. In fact, that are five species of Yucca recorded from Arkansas, including two or three from Carroll County, depending upon botanical whim. Botanists are so adept at changing plant names, that if they were put in charge of naming planets, we would surely wake-up one morning to discover that we no longer live on a planet called Earth. Telling Arkansas’s five yucca species apart from one another takes a good deal of chin rubbing.
Fortunately for lay-folk consumers of botanical knowledge, the common name yucca is the same as the genus name—Yucca. One species of Yucca here in Carroll County has a name that’s easy to remember —Yucca arkansana which is kin to Yucca louisianensis due to inbreeding or some other evolutionary exchange of genes in the pre-human past. In 2014, the late Dr. George P. Johnson, a botanist at Arkansas Tech in Russellville found Yucca freemanii in Miller County. Besides these three native species, Yucca filamentosa and Yucca flaccida occur here but are not native to Arkansas; they are naturalized. In other words, they were planted at some point and now grow and reproduce without the help of humans.
In North America (north of Mexico) there are twenty-eight species of Yucca. Yuccas have been used for thousands of years for food, beverages, detergents, medicines, construction material, and especially as a fiber plant. During the First World War, 80 million pounds of yucca fiber were used to make course bags. The U.S. Navy used a special heavy paper made from yucca fiber during material shortages of the Second World War. Over the centuries, among indigenous groups of the American Southwest, yuccas were the foremost wild plants used for material necessities.
One National Park in California is named after a yucca (Yucca brevifolia) the 792,683-acre, Joshua Tree National Park. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed it a National Monument in 1933. In that same year, a cousin of Roosevelt’s, Susan Delano McKelvey, published a paper on yuccas in the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University where she worked as a research associate and valued patron. So which came first, the President’s decree or his cousin’s interest in Joshua tree and other yuccas? Later, she wrote the definitive two volume work Yuccas of the Southwestern United States. My vote goes to Roosevelt’s cousin.