by Betty Alex

Our Mescal Beans plants were blooming en mass mid-February through mid-March; now there are tons of seeds hanging on the stems.  The scientific name was Sophora secundiflora until recently when it was changed to Dermatophyllum secundiflora.  However, the word ‘Sophora’ is one of those lovely sounds that I specifically connect with a lovely plant—so, to me, they will always be ‘Sophoras.”

Mescal Bean grows across South and Central Texas, through the Trans-Pecos and into southeast New Mexico. Sometimes it’s called Texas Mountain Laurel, though it is not even in the same family as the true Eastern Mountain Laurel.  Mescal Bean is a true Bean Family member.

The purple to purple-pink flowers fall in a drooping raceme and attract just about every insect around. This photo is (I think) of a Hyles lineata, White-lined Sphinx Moth. There are four or five at our blooming Sophoras every evening just at sunset and into the night. The moths have a bad rap because their larvae look a lot like tomato worms, but I haven’t actually had them ON my garden plants—they appear to prefer native species.

I got lucky on light, etc. with this photo because the moths are extremely quick. They are often called Hummingbird Moths because the hover and flit just like the birds. The plants are evergreen, beautiful all year, the flowers phenomenal during blooming; the seedpods elegant, and the beans BRILLIANT RED and hard as rocks.

The seeds are definitely poisonous and have been associated with causing hallucinations—but their actual ‘mental’ activity may just be that when you are being severely poisoned, you might hallucinate.

The best thing about them, however, is that the flowers smell like the old, original Grape KoolAid!  Really!  And they smell all day and all night—a great way to go to sleep.

I was going to write something about the Giant Daggers of Dagger Flat (Yucca faxoniana)—that hopefully are about to burst into bloom—when I ran into two odd items:

1) The “common name” is apparently now accepted to be “Eve’s Needle,” which is a bit odd, even though I really like it.  Still, we can’t really rename Dagger Flat to ‘Eve’s Needle Flat,’ so Giant Dagger they remain for me.

2) The botanists have apparently moved yuccas into another family. When I first met yuccas—in a botanical sense—they were in the Lily family (Liliaceae); a few years later I was told they were in the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), but before that settled in my brain someone put them into a brand new family that hadn’t even existed before—the Agave family (Agavaceae).  Which I kind of liked—sort of made sense! The Agave family contained agaves, yuccas, sotol, hesperaloe and nolina…. Not any more!

Now I am to understand that they are in the…  Asparagus family (Asparagaceae)! Not being a botanist, I usually just defer to the ‘experts’ and go with whatever, but this one just bugs me. I’m sure that the botanists who made this decision have a really good reason for the change. However, I personally am calling the Yuccas (and Agaves) part of the Agavaceae family at least for my personal usage. The only thing about the ‘new’ family is that the yucca flowers do taste—just a bit—like asparagus, and, as Tom points out, the new Lechuguilla and Century Plant flower stalks do look a lot like overgrown asparagus.  But it still bugs me….

According to Jennette Jurado, the “daggers” at Dagger Flat are in bud, so plan a full moon trip to Dagger Flat [north of Panther Junction, in Big Bend National Park] on or about Easter weekend. It is absolutely one of the most spectacular scenes in the Big Bend experience.  The surface of the flowers is very shiny and reflective and the light of the moon makes it seem like the whole mass of blooms are glowing from within. Take a camera and tripod and you can get amazing photos of the giant daggers glowing in the full moonlight. And you can usually see the yucca moths if you stay still and watch closely.

The flowers and fruit of yuccas are both edible. In fact, the bloom heads on two of my shorter yuccas that were in full bloom last week were eaten by the local deer. I’ve picked the flowers and eaten them both raw and cooked; the center tends to bitterness so you should taste and see if that part should be discarded. If it’s been a pretty damp year, they are quite good (raw, in salads), but they get bitter in drier years. In that case, just sauté the flower petals for about 2-3 minutes in butter to take out the bitterness. Don’t overcook them—they melt away to goo.

A few years ago, Big Bend National Park had a request from a Mescalero Apache woman (whose granddaughter was about to have a Coming of Age Ceremony) to collect yucca fruit for the traditional ceremony cakes. Yuccas are generally considered “female” plants and some of the more common rock art motifs in the Southwest, including in this area, are thought to represent yucca flowers. Usually she would have collected on the Mescalero Reservation, but they had a really cold winter and there were very few yucca fruit. She got official permission and she and her family came down and collected some fruit.

Yucca root is used as both medicine and shampoo/soap. Medical uses include reducing inflammation, especially from ailments like rheumatoid arthritis and other joint pain. The tea is a blood purifier, to cleanse the liver and kidneys. The leaves are still used for various American Indian crafts and traditional items. I’ve used the dried bloom stalks as Christmas trees. All insects seem to love the flowers, but the Yucca Moth is the primary pollinator, and without those little nondescript moths, we wouldn’t have yuccas! Birds nest in them and, of course, eat the bugs.

All in all, yuccas are a major—and somewhat underrated—portion of the Chihuahuan Desert ecology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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