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The Garden Gate: Yucca, aloe still magical and mysterious wonders

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Have you noticed how many gardens are featuring the tall, heavily blossom-laden stalks of yuccas?

Perhaps you don’t call them yuccas. You may know them by one of their many aliases: Spanish bayonet, desert candle, moon candle, Adam’s needle, manihot, cassava or manioc.

Long before Europeans reached these shores, the American Indians were using yuccas in many ways. Fibers or threads were pulled from the edges of the leaves and used for sewing. The lovely, bell-shaped blossoms, as well as the young shoots and stems, were used as food. The roots, also edible, made an excellent soap.

Originating in South America, yuccas are now known around the world, with their spires of creamy flowers ascending upward toward the sky. The flowers, called Flor-de-izots, are sold in Guatamala markets. When boiled or fried, they taste much like fresh asparagus.

The plants also bear fruits, which are eaten by Southwest Indians in the manner of bananas.

There was intense rivalry during the late Renaissance among the great European landowners in acquiring rare and exotic plants. A 1625 catalog of the Farnesese gardens in Italy lists yuccas as newly arrived from Central America.

In South America, yucca roots are cooked in the manner of sweet potatoes. They are available year ’round but must be used promptly, because they will only keep for a day or two.

There are many varieties of yucca, not all of which are edible. So before you venture into your garden to harvest yuccas, be sure of the kind you have. Yucca aloiolia and yucca filamentosa are fine. Some others are edible only after careful processing, because the roots in their wild state are very poisonous.

The manioc is one of these. The raw roots have to be grated, rinsed a number of times in fresh, cold water and squeezed dry to remove most of the poisonous juice. The heat of long cooking will eliminate the rest. This product is poi, which is a staple of Polynesian cuisine. Tapioca is also made from the manioc root.

The yucca is a member of the lily family. It is a big clan and, like all large families, there are great diversities among the members. It is hard to think of the Joshua tree of the California deserts and the lily-of-the-valley of New England gardens as cousins — or of onions and yuccas as related at all — but such is the case.

Yucca flowers can be used in soups, salads and egg dishes. When dipped in batter and deep fried, they make interesting appetizers.

Many Indians in the Southwest and Mexico use yucca juice as a remedy for various ills.

Another Mexican medicinal plant is aloe vera. As a folk medicine, it has many uses. For burns or scalds, squeeze the juice from a leaf off your houseplant aloes on to the painful area for instant relief. Also use it to relieve the discomfort of insect bites or poison ivy.

Aloe vera, also known as “medicine plant,” is very ancient with a history replete with legend, superstition and science all jumbled together. It is used all over the world in medicine, cosmetics, witchcraft and perfume.

Aloe is mentioned frequently in the Bible as an ingredient in perfume and medicinal ointments. Aloes were widely grown as pot plants in ancient Rome and were shipped from the New World to England for cultivation in 1680.

Concoctions of aloe juice were used in China as far back as 772 A.D. for the treatment of skin disorders. Greeks and Egyptians used aloes in cosmetics as early as the fourth century B.C.

There are references to aloe vera being used in the Philippines in medicines from very early times. It was also used in Malaysia, the Congo, India, Mexico and South America since prehistoric times. It is nearly always described as the “mystery plant,” or even the “miracle plant.”

In this age of sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical practice, the aloe vera is again being given much attention by researchers.

It has been rediscovered as being useful in the treatment of many afflictions. And it still carries overtones of its age-old aura of mystery and magic.

The yucca flowers on their top-heavy stalks and the aloe vera plants on so many kitchen windowsills continue to convey their magic century after century.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.