One thing that I liked when I hiked along Huber Wash in Zion National Park was the chance to see a whole new set (to me) of plants. The flora was just so different from what I was used to. And the yucca was one of those.
Or so I thought.
When I was in the Grand Canyon it was the agaves that stood out, but at Zion it was the yuccas, in full bloom.
The thing is, you had to hit the desert outside of Zion Canyon to see this, so most visitors missed it.
There was another nice blooming yucca at Chaco Canyon, but again, you had to do a bit of work. This one was along the Pueblo Alto trail (and not the short portion everybody else was taking).
Cool. Rare desert plants. You have to work to see them.
And then I was driving around here in central Ohio and saw this.
That’s on a street I drive down every day.
I went a bit farther, and there was this.
Yes, those are yuccas. I only recognized them because of the ones I’d seen out west. And of course I’ve been driving past them for years without even noticing them or realizing what they were.
It turns out that there is a species of yucca from the southeastern United States, Yucca filamentosa. These plants are clearly cultivars of those.
Now I was seeing yuccas everywhere. Here’s a nice pair along the road.
And a close-up of the flowers (which really are spectacular).
This is how I can be sure that it is Yucca filamentosa.
Those little filaments are a dead giveaway.
Of the yuccas around here, some are just blooming (like the one above), but there are others that are losing their blooms, and you can kind of see in this bunch (you can see a few petals on the ground).
These are losing their blooms because they are starting to set out their fruits, which you can see in this close-up.
By August they will have turned brown (unless trimmed off—some guides say they are “best pruned away for neatness and to promote the superior evergreen foliage effect”). Native Americans used yucca fruits for food. However, I have no idea if these particular fruits are edible or not.
So, how the heck does a desert plant thrive in the middle of Ohio?
First, don’t forget that the southwest deserts get pretty darn cold. Heck, it was going down to freezing at night in May when we were there. So it’s not as if the temperatures would bother them.
So all they really have to deal with is more water than what’s normally in a desert, but, as long as the roots aren’t sodden, there’s no reason they cannot do fine.
In that case, then, why aren’t they all over the place out here in the east?
The simple answer is that they get out-competed. Sure, they can handle the climate, but the adaptations that they have for the desert mean that they probably don’t grow as fast, or don’t (normally) get the sunlight they need, having been shaded out by the other plants more adapted to this area.
We see the same thing with one of my favorite trees, the bald cypress. I have eleven of them on my property. Their “normal” habitat is Louisiana or Illinois swamps (yes, there’s a big patch of them at the southern tip of Illinois). Yet, the tree itself is quite drought-tolerant. They do quite well elsewhere.
But again, in other locations they are out-competed. For them, I suspect it has to do with seed dispersal and growth. I’m always having maple and ash and buckeye and hickory volunteers popping up in my yard, but never a bald cypress. In an eastern forest those other trees know how to get out there. The bald cypress has adaptations better suited to the swampy areas that allow it to propagate there and not be out-competed.
Finally, I really kind of liked being surprised by the yuccas. I like finding things out, and to discover something that was under my nose all the time was really pretty interesting. The thing is, these little bits of “hidden” knowledge are all around us, and it takes some sort of little spark (in my case, the trip to Zion) to bring them out. The only real question is how they’d never come to my attention before.