Thursday, October 25, 2007

Secret-Agent Man (Yucca guatemalensis)

Yucca guatemalensis (more widely known by the incorrect name Y. elephantipes) is my very favorite houseplant. This is not to say that there aren't others that I like very very much, but I would be nearly inconsolable if I were to lose mine, particularly since I have a couple variegated versions that I haven't seen anywhere else, ever, which wouldn't be easy to replace. The first one of these, with gray variegation, I've had since 1998 or 1999, a couple plant-obsession cycles back (it's also the only survivor from that cycle, since a Sansevieria trifasciata I'd had since 1998 bit the dust about a year ago).

I've gotten a lot of very nice plants through mistaken identity. When I bought the gray Yucca,1 it was just a bunch of leaves with no visible stem in a 4-inch pot, and I thought it was a Dracaena of some kind. (It does sort of resemble a D. deremensis 'Warneckei,' if you're not looking too closely.) So for a very long time I persisted in thinking it was a Dracaena, even though I knew that Dracaenas didn't, for example, have leaves with serrated edges.

Some rooted cane cuttings from my original plant, now about the size of the plant I bought

Then I moved in 2001, up to the Iowa City area, and my new apartment was many, many times the size of where I'd been living before, so there was a whole bunch of room for new plants. I went to Target and found a couple more Dracaena-like plants, which had sword-shaped, thick but kinda floppy leaves, that were solid green with about a half-inch of yellow on the sides. No serration on the leaves this time2. I thought, well, Dracaenas are supposed to be pretty easy, so why not? And then eventually, again, it became clear to me that this, too, was a Yucca.

Top cuttings from the original yellow-variegated Yucca, now a bit bigger than the original plant was.

So then I met my husband in 2002, and we moved in together in 2006 (he had a cat, I had cat allergies: for this and other reasons3 there was a transitional period from 2004 to 2006 where we kept separate apartments in the same building4). He had a Yucca of his own but had assumed it to be a Dracaena fragrans, because the Yucca was smallish and looked enough like the Dracaena fragrans massangeana it was with that nobody really ever bothered to think about it too hard. Then at some point, I noticed that the little "corn plant" in this group planting of his had leaves with slightly serrated edges, and after some investigation, we concluded that 1) it was actually a Yucca, and 2) it was rotting to death. The group planting was subsequently divided, my husband gave the Yucca to me, whereupon I cut it into pieces and rooted it, making four even smaller plants out of it.

The pieces, now rooted and with adorable little sprouts. Who's a cute wittle Yucca? Who's a cutie? A-booj-a-booj-a-booj-a!

I do not know what Yuccas are hoping to gain by infiltrating Dracaena territory, but clearly they're planning something or another. Be on the lookout. Question your own Dracaenas.

Should war break out between the Yuccas and Dracaenas, my money is on the Yuccas. Their leaves are usually slightly serrated, which would be advantageous in battle, and also terminate in a fairly sharp point. Many species of Yucca have actual spines at the ends of leaves; Y. guatemalensis doesn't, but the leaves are still sturdy enough that they can hurt you if you walk into them wrong. My grower-guide reference book (useful in all kinds of unimaginable ways: here's the Amazon page for it, if you're interested. There's also a second edition, which I was not aware of when I got mine.) says that the author got a punctured eardrum from a Yucca leaf tip. So they're not to be toyed with, but at least they're not overtly mean, like Agaves are.

The other reason I love Yuccas is, they are incredibly tolerant of all kinds of things. The books will tell you that they need very bright light, ideally full sun, and while it's true that they do well in full sun (and they are very grateful if you can swing leaving them outside for a summer), they will put up with a lot less for a long time. During the transitional-apartment period, mine were all a few feet away from a north window, and their growth was unaffected, as far as I could tell. They also seem to be relatively easy-going as far as watering: I know mine have periodically been wetter or drier than they would have preferred, and they've come through it fine, except for one barely-rooted cane section that rooted, and sprouted, but then rotted out when I planted it with three other canes. Overwatering is a much bigger deal than underwatering; a lot of the risk can be eliminated by using an appropriately-sized pot (something that's not huge compared to the root ball) made of clay. Most of mine are in plastic, though, and apparently they couldn't care less.

I've never had any pest problems with mine, though I know they can still be attacked by scale and mealybugs, so you do want to be careful when you pick one out. I also suspect one of mine of being a highway for a spider mite migration last winter, though I have no proof of this, and in any case the mites seem not to have bothered the plant itself, just the plants around it.

The variegated versions are, according to the abovelinked Tropical Foliage Plants: A Grower's Guide (Lynn P. Griffith, Jr.), often more vigorous growers than the plain green kind. This flies in the face of all common sense, but that actually matches my experience pretty well. The yellow-variegated version of mine in particular seems to outgrow the gray-variegated and plain-green plants.

All three canes in this pot, plus the three small plants in the first picture, are descendants of the original grocery store plant in a 4-inch pot.

How do you penetrate a Yucca's ingenious disguise, if you see one in the store? Here are some tips.

1) If the leaf edges are slightly serrated (you won't be able to see this, probably: you have to run a finger along the side of the leaf), it's a Yucca. If not, it could go either way.
2) If the newest leaves have a blue-green cast to them (called "bloom"), like the coating on grapes or Echeverias, it's a Yucca. If not, it could go either way.
3) If the leaves have ridges running lengthwise down the leaves, it's a Dracaena. Smooth leaves could go either way.
4) If the leaves are wider than a couple inches (5 cm), it's a Dracaena. Thinner leaves could go either way.
5) If the leaves fall up, out, and down away from the stem in a smooth curve, it's probably a Dracaena. Yucca leaves tend to be heavy enough and thick enough that they will only curve down when they're too heavy to hold themselves straight anymore, so you wind up with two straight segments separated by a kink.

It's not that they're all that special, exactly, in and of themselves, but I really can't help but praise them: they've hardly ever given me a moment of trouble, and there's almost nothing else I can say that about. (Possibly Haworthia retusa, as well: we'll get to it eventually.)


Photo credits: all me.

1 (From the grocery store, surprisingly enough.)
2 It eventually developed serrations, which is kinda weird when you think about it.
3 (Reasons which are complicated, none of your business, and surprisingly uninteresting anyway.)
4 He gave Tara, his cat, to his parents. They then promptly moved to Minnesota, where Tara was killed by a wild animal of some kind, likely a fox, that broke into their back yard somehow.


Tracy said... I looked at all my draceana's hoping some maybe all were yuccas (I don't really like draceana) but none were, I don't think. Awesome Job!! Love your Blog!

mr_subjunctive said...

Perhaps you haven't met the right Dracaena yet. I just brought home a D. deremensis 'Riki' (or maybe 'Rikki') from work, that came in a week ago in the big tropical order, and I'm very impressed so far. It actually has a bit of a Yucca look to it, which makes me think that maybe the Dracaenas are doing some counter-espionage.

waterroots said...

Lol...I’d bet money on the Yuccas too if they went to war with the Dracaenas, even though I love both plant groups. My Dracaenas have a gentler nature and are a pleasure to deal with; their leaves are softer and more pliable. My rugged Yucca has tough, sword-like leaves that fight back whenever I try to clean them, not to mention how ruthlessly they poke your eyes when given the opportunity (terribly painful), which I learned the hard way...:)

Unknown said...

how did you root your yucca off shoots? Mine had some air-root nipples so I thought I'd submerge it in water, did that for like a week and potted it in Spagnum moss mix. Even shopped half of the leaves off while doing so.. . hope it roots. . .I have a couple more candidates on the mother tree that I had for years and the top shoots have grown to be 1 to 2 foot tall so I thought I chop some of them and see if they'll grow multiple shoots or force back budding. . . haven't done this on the Yucca cane trees so any advise is appreciated. I got it from Ikea over 5 years ago and it's been care free, still sitting in it's original pot.. . I will attempt to repot it one of these weekend.

mr_subjunctive said...

I've rooted sections of cane upright in soil (the baby plants in the post), on their side in soil (took forever, though), and also I've rooted tip cuttings in water. Currently trying tip cuttings in soil for the first time, and cane sections on their sides in vermiculite.

The first three methods are fairly easy to do (though you do need a good, sterile potting mix for the stem sections), and pretty much go like you'd expect: you cut the cane, you plant the cane, you wait for it to sprout. Water-rooting is even easier, though they do take some time to adapt to the soil if you leave them in water for a long time.

As far as cutting back an old plant, I haven't done a lot of that, but I did get old canes to resprout every time I've tried so far. They all only resprouted in one spot: one cane thought about developing a second head and then apparently thought better of it (I could see a little bit of a green spot there, beginning to grow, but it never developed beyond about 1/8 inch long).

As far as advice, it's fairly hard to get this wrong, really. Use a sharp, clean knife to cut, and then you can recut again to get a piece of leafless cane. The tip cutting, with the leaves, will usually root pretty easily in water within a month; once it has some roots an inch or two long you can go ahead and transfer it to soil. Use a mix that will drain really quickly and dry out really quickly -- no peat moss, or (gods forbid) topsoil.

Cane sections are probably easiest to do lying down: when I did mine the first time, I used a 6-inch pot with potting mix and just laid the canes in there, about half-buried, and watered the plant like it was already rooted (which means letting it dry out almost all the way and then watering thoroughly), in a sunny spot in the window, and it sprouted new shoots relatively quickly. About half of those shoots then died back, I suspect because they were blocking the light for one another. I would probably have kept more of the shoots if I'd put the canes out in full sun.

After a while, the shoots got to be a large enough size that I thought they could be transplanted on their own, and when I tried to transplant them, I found that most of the cane had sort of hollowed itself out, and there were just shoots up high, with some connecting tissue going down into the soil, and the rest of the cane was just barely there anymore. (So probably I'd waited longer to separate them than I needed to.) They pulled apart easily, and I potted them up in regular potting mix, burying everything below where the shoot emerged from the original cane, and they've done just fine ever since.

What else? Um. . . . Be patient. Don't water too often: until the plants get roots into the soil, it's going to dry out really slowly compared to what you're used to. The parent plant might benefit from spending the summer outside in a shady, protected spot (maybe with a little sun in the morning), and that will encourage it to sprout new heads to replace the ones you cut off. Two things about that, though. One, when you move it back inside, there's a good chance that the plant will drop some of those heads: they'll only keep a lot of them around if there's a lot of light, and two, let the cut end of the cane dry out inside before you move it outside. If you move it out immediately, then the cane can lose a lot of water before it manages to seal itself back up, and that can be stressful for the plant. (I don't think it's likely to kill the plant. But it's not going to get you the kind of plant you want.) If it sprouts a really crazy number of new heads, like say eight all crowded around the top of the cut, you might want to actually remove a few of them, leaving only three or four, because if you don't then they'll all compete for nutrients and light, and none of them will get very large.

That's all I can think of right now. Like I said, it's fairly hard to get this very wrong.

Unknown said...

someone recommended I keep no more than 2 or 3 top shoots. As of now I have 4 shoots with cane section as long as a foot so I will attempt to chop one of them off to propagate. Correction, I'm using sphagnum peat moss, not sphagnum moss. I found it to be more free draining than regular moisture controlled potting soil and they dry faster which is good for dessert plants. Someone also recommended mixing some construction sand with regular potting soil. I've not tried the seedling soil type as they're expensive. . . probably should for sterile reason you stated. As of now I've potted up together 2 of those shoots that easily came off the parent, they water rooted in matter of days. I'll be sure to only water them a week or 2 at a time without soaking the soil at all as I've learned my lesson from propagating dracaena marginatas that just rotted out on me last month. Can't wait to see some results from these 2. Someone suggested I dip them in rooting hormone before potting them and I did. They're near a window that gets indirect sun most of the day. Time will tell now. . thanks alot for the tips.

Anonymous said...

Wow I think I would have been happier not knowing the poor cat got eaten by a fox...

Anonymous said...

What is the name of the first plant image?

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm not sure I understand the question.

Dana T said...

Hello! Just letting you know that the link in the sidebar doesn't work anymore as it directs to a URL ending in Yucca elephantipes, it should be easy enough to change to direct to Yucca guatemalensis if you are so inclined. Have a good day!

mr_subjunctive said...

Dana T:

Thanks. Changed it.