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The Amazing Health Properties of the Yucca Plant

Optimal Health Systems
November, 2010

Throughout most of human history, populations have utilized the natural resources near at hand for most of their daily needs—shelter, clothing, utensils, food and medicine— along the way discovering and applying the practical knowledge they picked up by on-the-ground healing and survival experience.

The yucca plant—regarded by most people as merely a desert cactus-like shrub or tree often used for landscaping—is one of those native plants with far more value than to be viewed with an appreciative eye.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, “yucca (Spanish bayonet, Mojave yucca, Banana yucca, Joshua tree) is a genus of perennial shrubs and tree in the agave family, Agavaceae (Century plant family), closely related to the lily and even referred to as a lily by some authorities. Agavacae’s 40-50 species are notable for their rosettes of evergreen, tough, sword-shaped leaves and large white or whitish flowers. They are native to the hot and dry areas of North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean and have adapted to a vast range of climatic and ecological conditions. They can be found in rocky deserts and badlands, on prairies or grasslands, in mountainous regions and light woodlands. Many species of yucca bear edible parts, including fruits, seeds, flowers, flowering stems and roots.

The Joshua tree species, one of the longest-living plants on earth, was once used extensively for fencing and fiber. It is believed to have been named by Mormon settlers because the plant’s angular arms resembled the outstretched arms of Joshua leading his people out of the desert. During World War I, 8 million pounds of burlap and bagging material were made from its fibers. During World War II, the strong wood from the Joshua tree was used for making splints. However, the Joshua tree species of agave is now protected, as it is very slow growing.

Long before modern Europeans discovered the Americas, the inhabitants of these lands routinely crafted amazingly durable belts, baskets, cloth, mats, cords and sandals from the fibers in the spear-like leaves of the yucca shrub, of which there are forty-nine varieties. Some Hopi, Apache, Navajo, Papago and Ute Indians as well as Mexicans continue this craft of basket, mat and sandal-making today. Baskets were particularly important early on because pottery-making was not yet known to all tribes. Yucca baskets were vital for cooking, storage and carrying vessels. Leaves were also tied together to make a slow match for carrying fire. The roots of some types of yucca contain a natural detergent and were found to be effective for washing and shampooing. Native Americans and Mexicans also used yucca sap medicinally to treat arthritis, joint pain and inflammation. They used sap from the leaves in poultices or baths to treat skin lesions, sprains and bleeding.

We know now that this soapy substance from the pithy insides of the yucca leaves and roots is because of their high saponin content. According to researcher Ken Wells (, saponins are the precursor to cortisone, which prevent the release of toxins from the intestines which restrict cartilage formation. This makes the yucca plant particularly effective against arthritis and other afflictions that affect soft tissue. Thus, constituents of the yucca are used today to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Saponins, which are vital to good health, are produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands, which are affected adversely by stress and unhealthy lifestyles. Because so many individuals in modern society suffer (usually unknowingly) from what a few medical practitioners recognize as ‘adrenal fatigue,’ medicine or supplements containing saponins are frequently helpful.

The Linus Pauling Institute reports that new applications for saponins in animal husbandry are being explored, especially the effect of saponins on protozoal diseases. Many protozoa enter the body through the digestive tract, sometimes infecting the small intestine and causing severe diarrhea and other symptoms. Saponins form strong insoluble complexes with cholesterol and the Institute says this has many important implications for humans, including cholesterol-lowering activity. “This desirable effect is achieved by the binding of bile acids and cholesterol by saponins. Cholesterol is continually secreted into the intestine via the bile, with much of it reabsorbed. Saponins cause a depletion of LDL (bad) cholesterol by preventing its reabsorption.”

This allows bad cholesterol to easily be expelled from the body as bile. More cholesterol in your bile means less bad cholesterol in your bloodstream!

The two major commercial sources of saponins are from Yucca schidigera and Quillaja saponaria (soapbark tree).

Optimal Chronic

Although extensive studies on the nutritional and medicinal properties of yucca and their implications for human health are in the early stages, yucca extracts are already used to treat a variety of symptoms—migraine headaches, colitis, ulcers, wounds, gout, bursitis, hypertension, preventing of blood clots and liver, kidney and gallbladder disorders. However, notes Ken Wells, it is not yet known whether large doses are safe for children, pregnant or lactating women, or people with severe cases of kidney, liver and heart disease, or cancer. That caution noted, it is recognized that yucca roots, leaves and flowers are a substantial source of polyphenols (anti-inflammatory). Yucca also contains anti-oxidant properties and is often used in vitamin C supplements. The Pauling Institute says, “Yucca schidigera and Quillaja saponaria are rich storehouses of phytochemicals with many useful and important functions in human and animal nutrition,” and that modern scientists have just scratched the surface in our understanding of the many biological effects of saponins and their potential for improving human health.

And, according to Drug Digest, yucca root also contains resveratrol, a natural anti-oxidant that protects the body from damage caused by oxidation. Oxidation results from a high intake of fatty foods and processed vegetable oils and produces free radicals that can lead to an increased risk of dangerous conditions such as heart disease.

Interestingly, yucca extracts are used in beverages such as root beer and slurpies to provide the foamy ‘head.’ They are also used industrially in mining and ore separation, in preparation of emulsions for photographic films and extensively in cosmetics, such as lipstick and shampoo. The antifungal and antibacterial properties of saponins are important in cosmetic applications, in addition to their emollient effects. Yucca extracts are also used for ammonia and odor control in pig and poultry-raising facilities and in dog and cat foods (Pauling Institute).

Extracts from some of the more common yuccas are also used today in the alcoholic beverages Tequila and Mescal, though the highest quality (trade protected) Tequila is made from the family member blue agave.

So, now recognizing the incredible usefulness and versatility of that spiny desert plant, yucca, it is humbling, in this manufactured world, to reflect upon how we moderns are just now grasping to learn (or re-learn) the mysteries of the natural wonders that surround us and sustained humankind for thousands of years.

Yucca extracts and powder can be obtained in good health food stores and in some high-quality supplements. Sometimes yucca root can also be found in grocery stores and cooked like a potato. Learn more about yucca on the Internet or by consulting your health store or other natural health experts.

Yucca is one of the principal ingredients in Optimal Health Systems’ Optimal Chronic product.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.


Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: Stan Shebs