While approximately 40 species of the yucca grow naturally in the temperate regions of North America, there are a few varieties of the herb that also grow in the colder climates. Yucca belongs to the Agavaceae family and is extensively cultivated in the southern parts of North America. While the yucca plants may or may not have a straight central stem, the plant bears leaves that are stiff and normally shaped like swords. Many species of the yucca have common names and are more widely known by these names rather than their biological terms. For instance, Yucca aloifolia L. is better known as the Spanish-bayonet or dagger plant, while Y. brevifolia is more popular as Joshua tree. Similarly, Y. glauca is also known as the soapweed and Y. whipplei as Our Lord's Candle.
It may be noted here that the different species of the yucca along with other agaves have rich saponin content. The saponins are bitter to taste and have an irritating property. This element is distinguished by its ability to form foam when mixed with water and shaken. This particular quality of the saponins resembles the soap. In fact the saponins present in the yucca are derived from steroids and have been extensively researched by the scientists to study their latent aptitude as preliminary materials for the amalgamation of cortisone (a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex) and related corticoids (a drug acting like adrenal gland hormone). Incidentally, the researchers found that the precise uniqueness and the quantity of the various saponins present in yucca varied according to the part of the plant that was examined and also the place where the herb grew.
Leaves, roots, flowers, flowering stalks, fruits, seeds.
The soapy leaves of the yucca plant were used by the Native Americans to treat various conditions. They prepared poultices or baths with the yucca leaves to heal aching skin as well as other ailments. The poultice was said to be effective for curing sprains too. Herbal medicine practitioners of the past used the yucca leaves to treat all kinds of inflammations, especially joint inflammation and bleeding. It is also said that the Native Americans boiled the yucca leaves in water and used the cold solution to wash their hair with a view to get rid of dandruff and also fight hair loss.
While people extensively grow yuccas in the gardens for their ornamental value, different parts of several species of yuccas are edible - the fruits, flowering stalks, flowers, seeds and, although seldom, even the roots. In fact, the indications that the yucca roots are used as food frequently arise from the misunderstanding regarding another species whose name has the same pronunciation yucca, also known as cassava (botanical name, Manihot esculenta), is not related to the plant we are discussing here. The roots of this variety of yucca or the soap tree yucca (botanical name, Yucca elata) contain high amounts of saponins and are employed in the form of a shampoo in the rituals performed by Native Americans. In addition dried up leaves of this plant as well as its trunk fiber ignite quite easily and, hence, yucca is preferred to start fires by means of friction. A number of yucca species like Yucca filamentosa are denoted as ‘meat hangers’ by people in the countryside Appalachian regions in the eastern United States. In effect, there was a time when the coarse fibrous leaves having sharp spines at the tip of these species were employed to pierce meat and people formed a loop with these leaves by tying them with the intention of hanging meat in smoke houses or to cure meat using salt.
Yucca is known to have excellent blood purifying and cleansing properties and is effective in detoxifying the whole system. It seems that the elevated levels of saponins contained by the plant do not get into the bloodstream, but only work on the microorganisms present in the intestinal tract to control the equilibrium of the bacteria present inside the colon. It seems that the saponins present in yucca promote the development of good or beneficial flora, while impeding the growth of harmful bacteria. Furthermore, these saponins are likely to directly encourage the assimilation of additional nutritional aspects, while lessening toxins that are present in the digestive system for assimilation by the body.
It is also believed that using yucca helps in alleviating the symptoms related to arthritis, counting osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. As the saponins present in yucca assist in slowing down the assimilation of toxic substances present in the digestive tract, this herb indirectly helps the body’s eliminative system, which includes the blood, liver, kidneys and lymph, because the burden on them to get rid of toxic substances from the body is lessened. As a result, this reportedly diminishes the accumulation of toxic substances in our body, especially in our joints that are associated with degenerative or wasting diseases like arthritis, gout as well as rheumatism. It is also believed that yucca possesses the aptitude to disintegrate obstructions as well as deposits by inorganic minerals, thereby lessening joint inflammations. Experiments have revealed that the high saponin content in yucca is basically a hormonal substance - a steroid having the same properties as the adrenal hormone called cortisone.
Yucca has high fiber content and, hence, it may prove to be effective in curing problems related to the intestines and digestive system, counting formation of intestinal gas. In addition, the saponins present in this plant offer a beneficial alkalinity to the system laden with acidity (in other words complete with poisonous impurities). In some way, this action of the herb is useful for enhancing digestion, while helping in the accretion of undigested toxic substances, which are decomposed inside the colon resulting in the formation of gases having fetid odor.
The root of yucca has been used externally in the form of a soap, shampoo and even hair tonic (believed to thwart hair loss) for a long time now. The high natural saponin content in yucca, which is also responsible for cleansing the body from inside, generally forms excellent lather and so you may use this plant effectively as a substitute for soap.
Owing to its ability to form lather, yucca can be a wonderful source for making soap and/ or detergent. Several native groups in America have employed yucca in the form of a bathing soap as well as rinsing their hair, and washing clothes as well as other things that required cleaning. Similar to agaves, plants belonging to the yucca species also pile up carbohydrates that are related to steroids and belong to the category of chemicals known as saponins. If you pound and drench the main stems or even the rhizomes of a number of yucca varieties in water, they will result in the formation of foam. Among the different varieties of yucca found in Lower Pecos Canyonlands of North America, Torrey yucca offers the most excellent resource of this type of naturally occurring detergent.
Other medical uses
The yucca herb or its extracts like the saponins may be taken in different forms - capsules, tablets and tea - to treat various disorders. While many take two capsules or tablets daily to treat their disorders, several people suffering from relentless arthritis are required to take double the dose. In addition, a tea prepared by boiling one-fourth ounce of the yucca root in a pint of water approximately for 15 minutes is also helpful for various disorders. For effective action, three to five cups of the tea may be taken daily. However, if this dosage leads to loose motions, the quantity of the roots in the tea may be reduced.
Side effects and cautions
If taken in excessive dosages or more than what has been recommended by the physicians, the yucca may cause loose motions. During tube tests with the herb, it has been found that yucca and other saponins contained in it may often cause the red blood cells to rupture - a process called ‘hemolysis'. However, researchers are yet to ascertain the percentage of hemolysis when saponins are taken in the mouth. Nevertheless, yucca is permitted for use in some foods like the root beer, where it functions as a foaming agent. Since there have been no complaints of hemolysis from the root beer drinkers, the herbal supplements prepared with yucca may be considered to be safe for consumption. However, physicians never recommend the use of yucca at a stretch for over three months as it may hinder with the assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins in the body. Till the time of writing this piece, there is no familiar drug interfaces with the yucca.
Saponins present in the herb species are an important element of the yucca plant. The saponins function like soaps as they possess both water as well as fat soluble properties. According to an introductory experiment it was found that saponins present in yucca are beneficial for people suffering from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The authors of the study were of the opinion that the saponins present in yucca may obstruct the secretion of toxins from the intestines that slow down the normal development of cartilages or strong elastic tissues found in the body. However, this aspect of the saponins still remains to be verified in human pharmacological studies. Test tube studies of yucca have shown that one of the herb's species possesses the properties to combat melanoma cells or malignant tumour growth of the skin. It is unfortunate that the clinical studies conducted with yucca have still not been able to provide any result useful for curing cancer in humans.