The Garden Gate: Yucca both beautiful in the garden and yummy on the plate

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By Ellen Probert Williamson
Summer gardens are so often a blaze of color — even at the very beginning of summer, when everything seems to come to flower at once — that the lovely big towering stalks of yucca seem to strike a cooling note with their white cascades of blossom.

Yuccas have many aliases derived from the various countries where they may be found. These include Spanish bayonet, desert candle, Adam’s needle, manihot and Cassavasor manioc.

Yuccas originated in South America. They are now worldwide, sending their spires of creamy blossom toward the sky.

In Guatemala, the flowers are sold in the markets and called flor de izote. Boiled or fried, they taste much like asparagus.

Yucca also bear fruit which is eaten in the manner of bananas by the Indians of the American Southwest.

The Indians were using yucca before the Europeans reached these shores. Fibers or threads pulled from the edges of the leaves were used for sewing.

The lovely bell-shaped flowers, the young shoots and stems were used for food. The roots were also used to make an excellent soup.

An intense rivalry to acquire rare and exotic plants took place among great European landowners during the late Renaissance. An 1825 catalogue of the Farnese gardens in Italy listed yuccas newly arrived from South America.

In South America, yucca roots are cooked like sweet potatoes. They are available year-round, but they must be cooked the same day they are harvested.

Not all of the many varieties of yucca are edible. Before you venture out to your garden to harvest yuccas, be sure of what kind you have.

Yucca alooifolia and yucca filamentosa are fine, but some others are edible only after careful processing because the roots in their raw state are poisonous.

The manioc is one of those. The raw roots have to be grated, then rinsed a number of times in fresh water and squeezed dry to  remove most of the poisonous juice. Then the heat of long cooking eliminates the rest.

The resulting product is the poi, which is the staple of Polynesian cuisine. Tapioca is also made from the manioc root in this way.

Yucca are members of the lily family. It is a big clan and, like all large families, there are great diversities among its members.

It is hard to think of the Joshua tree of the California desert and the lily-of-the-valley of New England gardens as cousins, or of onions and yuccas as being related, but such is the case.

Yucca flowers are good to use in soups, salads and egg dishes. When dipped in batter and deep fried, they make interesting appetizers.

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

Another lily relative, the daylily, will be appearing soon in many gardens.

They are hardy and have a superior ability to resist drought and compete with encroaching weeds.

They require almost no care or attention and are often regarded as almost wild plants.

So prolific are their blossoms that many people are not aware that each one lasts only for a single day.

The Chinese have eaten daylilies for centuries. They are grown as a cash crop by many Chinese farmers.

Dried daylilies are exported worldwide to Asian grocery stores, where they are often labeled gumjum or gumtsoy.

The elegance of daylilies lends itself happily to any flower arrangement from the Williamsburg-type mass bouquets to the sophisticated simplicity of a Japanese arrangement.

Their flavor is similar to lima beans, but a trifle sweeter. They have a high content of protein, vitamins and minerals.

Wash the blossoms gently and remove the pistils and stamens. Be careful not to overcook them.

Chop the blossoms and add them to scrambled eggs or omelets.

Place the buds in the juice from dill pickles and refrigerate overnight and serve with sliced cold meats.

Torn blossoms are a nice addition to a tossed salad. You can sometimes use the blossoms as cups in which to serve chicken salad.

Growing a vegetable garden can be rewarding in a number of ways. Having very fresh vegetables for your table is wonderful, but growing some that are spectacular or different can be fun, too.

You might try growing a sakurajima radish. They take about 70 days to reach maturity, when they  are the size of a watermelon and often weigh more than 15 pounds. Compare that with the usual radish!

But don’t plant pumpkins and squash near each other. They will cross-pollinate if you do, and you will get some very odd looking “pumpquashes.”

Here is a new way to scare marauding raccoons or rabbits out of your vegetable garden. Put a small portable radio in a plastic bag to protect it from the vagaries of the weather.

Tune it up as loud as possible, and set it at a 24-hour news station. Place it in the middle of your vegetable garden.

The midnight news will probably be bad enough to scare everything away!

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.