Story by Michelle Reynolds
The diversity of Alabama’s flora makes it super easy for the Alabama gardener to be inspired by native plants for their beauty, their architectural interest, as well as the wildlife they attract to the home garden. And with more nurseries, local botanical gardens, and nature centers focusing on the propagation and selling of native plants, gardeners have more options than ever before.
In my own landscape, I set out to create a sense of place with one of my favorite native plants. My yard is a reflection of my personality, daydreams of travel, my interests in the world and this state, and a celebration of biological diversity. Serpentine pathways, pea gravel, rock walls, Mexican pottery, silver-leafed foliage, grasses, herbs, hot blooms, and yuccas are the elements of style I have worked into the landscape of the Spanish-revival bungalow I share with my photographer husband. I love combinations of the wispy foliage of threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) with starbursts of Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii) and silver leaves of Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa). Trailing million bells (Calibrachoa spp.) in bright colors spill over the edges of rock walls and planters. Creeping oregano and thyme and clumps of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) lend their fragrances to the mix and provide cover to bare soil. Grass-like spears of common daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) topped with orange blossoms stand alongside wild spikes of the native and ornamental yuccas.
Varieties of yuccas are plopped into pots and in-between places, and wherever else I can fit them. I like the way the spikes look, the emerging asparagus-looking stalks, and I’m gaga over the white bell-shaped flowers. The plants represent many things to me. Yuccas seem to give warning to pesky garden intruders, they resemble my moods, they match the aesthetics of our stucco house, and they remind me of my visits to the deserts of the Southwest and of the grasslands and rocky hills closer to home.
I see yuccas in the wild when hiking out at Oak Mountain or glade hopping on Lookout Mountain, along roadsides on the way to the beach, and I see them in the open borders of forests and fields of Wyeth and Sand Mountains when I visit my family and friends. On grassy knolls, rock outcrops, sandy or gravelly soils, as well as in low-lying basins and creek banks, yuccas grow in a variety of places around the state. Sword-like evergreen leaves arranged in tight clumps stand out against the landscape wherever they are. In the early summer, tall stalks rise from the rosettes, and bell-shaped white flowers erupt into a chandelier-shaped cluster on top.
The Alabama Plant Atlas lists four species of yuccas native to the state, and I have found each of these sold in garden centers. The species I see most often is Yucca filamentosa (pictured), and as the name suggests, the leaves have filaments along the edges. Spanish dagger (Y. aloifolia) is a taller plant with bolder spikes. They can be quite dangerous in the garden, but I like to grow them on the slope between the rock wall and the street. Weak-leaf yucca (Y. flaccida) is popular in the trade and is often sold as a gold variegated form, ‘Golden Sword’. I like to grow these in pots above and away from my dog’s eye level. Mound lily yucca (Y. recurvifolia) is a broad plant with longer leaves, and the lower leaves are weeping.
Yuccas depend on the yucca moth for pollination, and in return, the plant provides food for the moth’s larvae. Timed with the blooming of the plants, the tiny white moths emerge from their cocoons in the soil, they mate, and then the female will begin to gather pollen from flowers. She will gather from one flower, fly to another, deposit the pollen mass onto the stigma of the flower, and oviposit her eggs among the ovules (the plant’s eggs). The pollination ensures the development of the ovules into seeds, and the seeds later become a food source for the moth larvae. As the moth larvae mature, they will drop to the ground to pupate. The untouched seeds will disperse by falling to the ground. The mutualism between moth and plant is fascinating, and every time I come across yucca blooms in the wild or in cultivated gardens, I have to check and see if the flowers are filled with the little yucca moths. I will turn a flower upwards, cup it in my hand, and watch them run around the inside of the bell, gathering pollen from the stamens as they go. They are so cute!
Although I haven’t seen any on my plants at home, yucca is also larval host to the yucca giant skipper. According to the Alabama Butterfly Atlas, it is unlikely to find the skipper butterflies in urban areas, but next time I spot yuccas during my journeys, I’ll be on the lookout for them.