Despite the cool breeze blowing off the Pacific visible 1300 feet below (400 meters) and four and a half miles away (7 kilometers), it is hot. Blisteringly so. The sun beats down on me heating my skin like the bank of coals left over from a bonfire. Across the valleys the slopes of the Santa Monica mountains waver in my vision as the rising heat warps the air, changing its density and bending the light. At my feet what looks like heat shadows dance, but upon closer investigation I realize that it is a 6 inch (15cm) layer of extremely fine alkaline dust blowing over the trail like a Martian sandstorm seen from orbit.
This is one of the most diverse areas of California for birds, but all I hear is a single crow cawing as it glides over the ridge and falls into the canyon to the west of me. Dressed all in black, even the crows must be broiling. Here and there fence lizards and side blotch lizards scurry abruptly across patches of orangey dust leaving sharp trails in the fine powder that flies up from beneath their feet and whip-lashing tails.
Only the flies and ants are active; green bottle flies, landing to steal a lick of sweat from my arms before I shoe them away and inexhaustible armies of red ants collecting seeds to add to their larders.
It is the middle of the day, the time when the Chumash sun god grows weary of carrying the heavy bark torch he carries across the sky and stoops under its weight, allowing the flame to fall close the the planet’s surface.
Here and there on the drably greenish slopes pillars of bright white stand proud, like blowtorches, clearly visible for great distances in the bright sunlight.
These 9+ foot (3+ meter) beacons are the inflorescences of an iconic coastal chaparral plant and the reason why I am walking in heat that even the lizards are avoiding.
This plant has a number of common names and has recently been reclassified and renamed in the academic literature. The most common name is simply “yucca”, with the “y” portion pronounced as in “ya-all” rather than “you”. This is not to be confused with “yuca” (pronounced with the “you” sound), the cassava root, a common food found through much of the tropics.
This particular species of yucca is also known as Chaparral Yucca, Common Yucca, Foothill Yucca, Our Lord’s Candle, Quixote Yucca, and, perhaps the most telling, Spanish Bayonet. I find the latter name to be particularity evocative as the long, lance-like leaves are crowned with a needle-like point that easily penetrates clothing, only to break off under your skin, leaving a mark that itches for days to weeks as your body works the barb back out.
Like many organisms, this plant has been classified and reclassified, the scientific name changing back and forth as new information comes to light. It is currently known as Hesperoyucca whipplei, a name coined in 1892 by Georg Engelmann, but it spent many years happily living under the name Yucca whipplei, when it was thought to be more closely related to Joshua Trees than recent genetic analysis indicates that it is. Perhaps I am lazy, but I have always referred to it as yucca, and will continue to do so, relying on context to clarify which of several I mean.
The inflorescence of Chaparral Yucca is a mighty affair, that stands high above the landscape in defiance of herbivorous predators, protected by its height and the spiky ball of needle-tipped blades below.
For many years these yuccas, which are monocots (having simple leaves with no branch-like structures in them) were though to be in the lily family (Liliaceae) on the basis of their flower construction which closely mirrors the multiple sets of 3 and superior ovaries that are a characteristic of lilies. Now the yuccas have been moved into the Asparagaceae family which includes asparagus, orchids, hyacinths, Lily-of-the-Valley, and the close relative agave, known to most people in its cooked, fermented, and distilled form, Tequila.
When you look at the flowers of a plant you are looking at its genitals, a thought that should give one pause the next time you buy flowers for your partner. Unlike animals, plants cannot wander about to seek their mates and thus many must rely upon intermediaries for reproduction. The various colors, shapes, scents, and sizes of flowers are meant to attract very specific sexual intermediaries. Brightly colored flowers are often attractants for birds, butterflies, and bees that are active during the day, long tube-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds and insects with long tongues, flowers with fetid scents often attract flies and beetles. The yucca has relatively large bright white flowers with a slightly sweet, nutty smell.
These highly scented, bright white flowers, so visible during the day, are meant to attract night flying creatures. In this case a very specific moth, the California Yucca Moth (Tegeticula maculata). The relationship between the Yucca Moth and the yucca plant is one of mutual dependence; despite all the other insects that come to steal nectar, only the yucca moth pollinates the plant. As it does so, it deposits its eggs in the developing seed pods, where the larvae grow, eating some of the seeds as they grow. These moths only lay eggs in the yucca seed capsules. In return for pollination (sex) the plant sacrifices some of its seeds. At this point, neither the plant, nor the moth can survive without the other. The specificity of the relationship suggest that it is an old one.
The yucca plant is incredibly useful. The long leaves are tough and full of strong fibers. The whole leaves were woven into mats and sandals. The fibers were separated and twisted into extremely strong cord; numerous time I have done this quickly in the field when I need a length of twine and do not want to cut the cord I carry in my pocket. The flower stalk is full of water and sugar, the flowers themselves are edible, more than edible, they are delicious with a delicate nut-like flavor with a touch of bitterness, a little like cashew blended with bitter almond topped with a dash of gardenia scent. The unripe seeds are edible raw or roasted, and the dried seeds can be ground into flour.
It is not only humans that find the plants useful and delicious, deer, rats and birds all like to eat the tasty bits, many getting water in addition to nutrients.
It takes a yucca plant 4-6 years to reach flowering stage, then, like a century plant, it dies shortly after flowering. Even while it is flowering the leaves begin turning color.
New plants grow from runners and dispersed seeds.
The old flower stalks can remain standing for another year or two before collapsing, often with the shredded remains of the seed pods still attached.
This is one of the iconic plants of the coastal chaparral environment, one which I admire, but treat with the utmost respect, having spent far too much time digging leaf-spikes out of my legs and arms over the years.