Soap Tree Yucca

Yucca elata Engelmann
Liliaceae Lily Family

Soap-tree yucca was used by native peoples as a source of food, fiber for basketry and cord, soap, and building material. The towering plant often resembles a palm tree with relatively thin leaves arranged in a rosette around a central stem or trunk. Mature plants develop a trunk, and can grow to a height of 5 or 6 meters, hence the name soap-tree. The leaves are long and leathery with tough stringy fibers. Young plants spread from the roots, so it is often observed in large colonies. When flowering they present an impressive show on the landscape.

Many other yucca species were also used in similar ways. See yucca entries in Plant Galleries in other regions for other examples:
Yucca, Plateaus and Canyonlands region
Yucca, South Texas Plains region

Archeology. Yucca leaves or fibers have been reported from archeological sites in the El Paso/Las Cruces area (Jornada), but they can not be identified to species (Dering 2003). The edible yucca, Yucca baccata (banana yucca) has large and easily recognizable seeds that do show up in archeological deposits. However, soap tree yucca fruit are not edible. The flowers and emerging flower stalk were consumed, but these are not preserved at most archeological sites. Additionally, the trunks (likely the younger central stem) of the plants were consumed, but these are also difficult to identify. The leaves and roots of the soap-tree were used either for weaving basketry, making clothing, or personal hygiene and medicinal applications.

Food . Yucca flowers were boiled and eaten, or simply eaten raw by the Chiricahua and the Mescalero Apache (Castetter and Opler 1936). Basehart (1960) notes that the flowers were boiled, dried, and stored by the Mescalero. They also added the flowers to soups. The western Apache also utilized the flowers of soap-tree yucca (Buskirk 1986). Emerging Yucca elata flower stalks also were baked in pits overnight, or roasted on coals. My experience with flower stalks is that the younger they are, the less cooking they require. On the older, tree-like plants, the stalks would have been growing beyond the reach of deer, which often graze them at night before they can be harvested.

The Mescalero Apache baked the trunks or central stems in pits and dried and stored them, much like agave. The dried central stems were also were processed into a meal or flour and added to food (Basehart 1960).

Basketry, cordage, and building material. The leaves contain long, thin, straight fibers that provide them with remarkable strength and flexibility. These qualities were recognized by many groups, and the leaves were utilized for many technological applications. The Papago used strips of the leaves to sew coiled basketry together. The Pima used the leaf fibers to construct nets that could be utilized as containers or traps (Bell and Castetter 1941). The Western Apache used the leaves to make cordage (Buskirk 1986). Shallow baskets or trays, used for many purposes, were fashioned from the versatile leaves of this plant (Castetter and Opler 1936). Buskirk (1986) reports that the red roots were utilized to decorate baskets and as sandal loops. The resilient leaves were woven through the upright sticks of house walls to secure them to the corner posts (Castetter and Underhill 1935).

Soap. The soap-tree, not surprisingly, was also utilized as soap. The roots and the trunk contain abundant saponins, chemicals that foam when the root is soaked in water and agitated. The Western Apache, the Navajo, and the Pima all used the root as soap (Buskirk 1986; Elmore 1944; Russell 1908).

TBH Links

See entries in the Nature's Harvest exhibits of other regions of Prehistoric Texas for information on other yucca species:
Yucca, Plateaus and Canyonlands
Yucca, South Texas Plains


Basehart, Harry
1960     Mescalero Apache Subsistence Patterns and Socio-Political Organization. The University of New Mexico Mescalero-Chiricahua Land Claims Project Contract Research #290-154. University of New Mexico. Albuquerque.

Bell, Willis H. and Edward F. Castetter
1941     The Utilization of Yucca, Sotol, and Beargrass by the Aborigines in the American Southwest. The University of New Mexico Bulletin 372, Biological Series 5(5), Albuquerque.

Buskirk, Winfred
1986     The Western Apache: Living with the Land Before 1950. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Castetter, Edward F. and Morris Opler
1936     The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache: A. The Use of Plants for Foods, Beverages, and Narcotics. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. III. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(5), Albuquerque.

Castetter, Edward F. and Ruth M. Underhill
1935   Ethnobotany of the Papago Indians. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. II. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(3). Albuquerque.

Elmore, Francis H.
1944    Ethnobotany of the Navajo. University of New Mexico Bulletin. Monograph Series 1(7). University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque.

Russell, Frank
1908    The Pima Indians. In Twenty-sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, No. 26. [1904-1905], pp. 17-389. Washington, D.C.

Vestal, Paul
1952    Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 40 (4). Harvard University. Boston.

Zigmond, Maurice L.
1981    Kawaiisu Ethnobotany. University of Utah Press. Salt Lake City.

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photo of soap-tree yucca
Soap-tree yucca towers above a mesquite flat east of Sanderson in Pecos County. Photo by Susan Dial.
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