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Yucca glauca

Great Plains Yucca Flower

Big Basin Prairie Preserve, Kansas     •     June 4, 2009
Photos by Beau Bosko

Posted on April 28, 2010, from Fayetteville, Arkansas

The image, its beauty and its form, lasts when the flower is gone, but who among the millions will pause along the path to see it, either the bloom on the earth or the photograph on the page? 

The moment of conception is fast like a lifetime, and the spark that creates a thing is transient like the electric cord binding the image to this shimmering page.  It is said the Great Plains yucca can live for half of a century.  Who can know . . . at the end . . . when a yucca . . . as a singular creation . . . has fallen among the countless wild things of the field?

Family: Agavaceae
Genus: Yucca
Species: glauca Nutt.
Nutt. indicates the honorific, an insider's allusion to a famous botanist, Thomas Nuttall, whose journeys across the United States in the early nineteenth century produced a botanical masterpiece in two volumes, The Genera of North American Plants and A Catalogue of the Species to the Year 1817.  History shows that Mr. Nuttall traveled through Kansas during his expeditions, perhaps over the same plot of earth that held the roots of the yucca shown above.  The Pacific Dogwood Cornus nuttallii and Nuttall's Oak Quercus texana are among several flora that bear his name.     

Soapweed is the "also called" name for Mr. Nuttall's Yucca glauca.   It is the tiny Yucca cousin to the towering Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, grandest of the forty members of the genus.  The roots of the soapweed, clinging to the rocky and sandy soil of the Great Plains, find their water and nutrients by stretching out as far as thirty feet from the little tower of leaves, stems, and flowers rising from the earth.  The long and shallow roots provide succulent treats for foraging bison, who uproot the yucca with their sharp hooves and enjoy it for dinner.

As for the soap in the weed, it also comes from the roots.  Soak them in warm water and they exude a mild and pleasant lather, which can be used as soap and shampoo.  It is said that the First Peoples of the land found soapweed and other varieties of yucca useful as stock for medicinal teas to treat stomach aches and ailments of the scalp.  Leaf fibers became raw material for baskets, mats, and sandals.  Young yucca stalks and new seed pods were cooked and eaten.     

Big Basin Prairie Preserve in the Red Hills of south-central Kansas is home to a host of wonderful wildflowers and a small herd of bison, who can be seen munching on the soapweed roots and other brightly colored delicacies growing abundantly on the prairie.  The preserve is one of nature's remote little jewels, a circular depression about a mile in diameter and enclosed by vertical walls rising to heights of a hundred feet.  Among its many surprises is Saint Jacob's Well, a pool nearly a hundred feet in diameter that is nestled in a little depression of its own and is said to have never gone dry. 

Bison Pen
spacer Bison Meeting Place
Big Basin Prairie Preserve, Kansas     •     June 4, 2009

A primitive stone and gravel road meanders through Big Basin.  This vista, facing southwest, is about fifty yards or so off the road and some ways into the heart of the preserve.  The sharp vertical drop-off on the other side of the blue-gray stones falls about a hundred feet to the basin floor.

The bison pen is the only structure on the preserve.  On the day of our visit, a small herd grazed in the basin just to the left of the view shown above.  "The primary objective in managing the preserve is to maintain the site in its natural state and thus preserve a unique ecological and geological area," the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks states in its Big Basin flyer.  "Grazing is a natural and healthy activity in the prairie ecosystem, and herds of bison are maintained at the preserve to continue this natural process."  I also photographed the bison, but they were far away and now appear as tiny brown specks in the images.  Some day I'll go back and take a closer picture.


  L I N K S

lilbat The Soapweed Yucca Species Profile
Jim Greenwood's profile of the Yucca glauca is thorough and wide-ranging. His tale of the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the yucca moth provides a fascinating sidebar to the study.

lilbat Big Basin Prairie Preserve
Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.  With special thanks to Karen Steele of the Region 3 Office in Dodge City, Kansas, for her assistance in getting the story told.

lilbat Prickly Galaxy
Follow this link to the genesis of our continued exploration of the Big Basin Prairie Preserve.


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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

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