Want a dramatic focal point, a colorful foliage plant for winter interest, or a drought-tolerant “thriller” for a container? Yucca has you covered! With its sword-shaped, evergreen leaves that may boast sunny yellow variegation, yucca makes a bold and beautiful statement no matter the season.
Depending on the species, its form may be spherical (Yucca rostrata), star-shaped (Yucca gloriosa), or bottlebrush (Yucca aloifolia), and mature plants send up a tall bloom spike festooned with ivory, bell-shaped flowers. All that and it has remarkable heat and cold tolerance too.
So why doesn’t everyone grow it? A justifiable fear of injury is probably the number-one reason. Spines at the ends of stiff leaves give some species of yucca the common name “Spanish bayonet.” But other species are less threatening, with leaves that flex or droop so they can’t stiff-arm you. There’s also a common misconception that yuccas are desert plants unsuitable to temperate climates. However, yucca is surprisingly hardy across the U.S., provided it has good drainage.
Yuccas need sun (generally) and soil that doesn’t stay wet or moist. Sandy or rocky soil that drains quickly is ideal, but yuccas can thrive in heavier soil too, provided it drains well – say, in a mounded berm or raised bed. In hotter climates, especially in the Southwest, many yucca species will also grow well in part shade or dappled shade.
Colorfully variegated cultivars like Yucca gloriosa ‘Bright Star’, Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, and Yucca filamentosa ‘Bright Edge’ are popular options for their striped, lemon-lime foliage and their smaller size, generally around 1-2 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide.
Their eye-catching coloring and manageable size make them perfectly suited for massing as a medium-height groundcover, adding year-round color and structure to perennial beds, and anchoring a focal-point container. Cold weather can intensify the coloring of variegated yuccas, making them even showier in winter. Take that, winter blahs!
What about pests?
While deer tend to avoid the fibrous, strappy leaves, they love yucca flowers and will quickly find and devour the bloom spikes. Enjoy yucca flowers in your deer-fenced garden, and resign yourself to yucca being a foliage plant – but a good one! -- elsewhere.
Male deer can also be a nuisance in the fall, when bucks may choose a sturdy yucca as a rubbing post to remove itchy velvet from their antlers. If you already have to cage young trees against this sort of damage, you may have to do the same for larger yuccas.
Smaller yuccas, however, will likely escape notice. Rabbits may munch tender new yucca leaves. Yucca and agave weevils in some parts of the U.S., especially the Southwest, can destroy susceptible plants. To avoid damage, grow yuccas “lean,” in well-drained soil without much, if any, supplemental irrigation once established.
Here are some garden-worthy yuccas to try.
Beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata)
Beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata), especially the powder-blue cultivar ‘Sapphire Skies’. Beaked yucca makes a spherical head of strappy, blue-green leaves atop a trunk that can grow (slowly) up to 12-16 feet. Its pliable leaves shimmer in the slightest breeze. Hardy to zone 5.
Adam's needle (Yucca filamentosa)
Native to the Gulf Coast states all the way up to New Jersey, Adam’s needle is one of the oldest yuccas in cultivation. Colorful cultivars like ‘Color Guard’ and ‘Bright Edge’ are excellent in containers. With their dual-tone leaves, they'll also add winter color and structure to perennial beds with dry-loving companion plants like salvia and yarrow. ‘Color Guard’ grows as a solitary, star-shaped plant, while ‘Bright Edge’ forms an upright clump. Hardy to zone 5.
Softleaf yucca (Yucca recurvifolia)
Softleaf yucca (Yucca recurvifolia), also known as weeping yucca. With drooping, flexible leaves, softleaf yucca poses less danger of poking you than other medium-sized yuccas. It can grow to 4 or 5 feet tall and wide and is very drought tolerant. In hotter climates, it also grows well in light shade. Try the pale-yellow cultivar ‘Margaritaville’, which grows very slowly to the same height. Hardy to zone 7.
'Bright Star' yucca (Yucca gloriosa ‘Bright Star’)
Resembling a moonshine-yellow sea urchin, ‘Bright Star’ is perfect for a focal-point container. It eventually forms a short trunk. Hardy to zone 7.
Soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca).
One of the most cold-tolerant yuccas, soapweed has narrow, dagger-like leaves and forms a large clump over time, so site it carefully. Hardy to zone 4.
Golden Spanish dagger (Yucca aloifolia ‘Marginata’)
‘Marginata’, the variegated cultivar of the species, forms an 8- to 10-foot bottlebrush of sword-like, lemon-lime leaves. Place it at the back of a bed where it can be admired from a safe distance. Hardy to zone 6.
Photos: © Pam Penick