The yucca around Denver is in full bloom right now, such that when we went to Gregg’s parents’ house a few days ago on June 18, the hillside in the field across the street was covered with spires of the bulbous white and sometimes purplish flowers. Unfortunately, they were protected from would-be foragers by a network of wire and wooden fences, not to mention a small amount of cow traffic.
Gregg’s parents live in a 55-and-over “active adult community” in Aurora. Folks are always out and about—walking, running, swimming, playing tennis and golf. But I figured if we got up early in the morning and headed out there we might avoid a few looks as we scaled a fence I’d scoped out, one that got us to a small 10×20-yard patch of yucca that wasn’t encircled by the second, interior, cow-protecting fence.
The plan worked and we set to harvesting a few yucca flowers from each plant, checking for bugs first and snipping them into our bags while taking care not to get poked by the sharp leaves. In the midst of our foraging, however, an over-55 woman drove up to a town-home on the hillside nearby and demanded to know what we were doing.
I shrunk back, nervous and afraid to get caught in the act. But Gregg—you should have seen him—he stepped right up and explained happily that we were picking yucca TO EAT!”
To which the lady replied, “That’s private property, you know.”
I was ready to make a run for it, but Gregg didn’t skip a beat; he stuck his chest out and communicated, in a friendly but firm manner, that his parents live across the street, followed by a practiced recitation of their home address, so that by the end of it, she practically invited us to stay and pick! I was a little shook up, though, so we took a few more flowers and hit the road.
Yucca Pistils and Stamens—To Eat or Not to Eat?
In Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate (1993), Cathy Wilkinson Barash says that when eating flowers, one should remove the pistils and stamens and eat only the petals. Although I have found numerous sources that say the same thing, I still have yet to find one that explains why.
The claim is repeated by Arlene Wright Correll in her online entry, Please Eat the Daisies and Other Edible Flowers (which is an interesting page, by the way, as it contains a long list of edible flowers and numerous recipes, though not one for yucca). Regarding yucca specifically, she has this information: “Only the petals are edible. Other parts contain saponin which is poisonous. Large amounts may be harmful.”
University of California Master Gardener Dorothy M. Downing (2010) indicates that for those with allergies, edible flowers should be introduced into the diet gradually. “Some sources suggest that if you have asthma or hay fever, you shouldn’t eat flowers at all,” she writes.
Finally, Eat The Weeds blogger, Deane Jordan (aka “Green Deane”) indicates from personal experience that raw yucca petals “usually give [him] a stomach ache, at best throat ache.” Jordan therefore urges readers to try raw blossoms carefully, starting with one petal first and waiting 20 minutes to see if one’s throat feels dry or bitter. “If so these flowers should be cooked,” he concludes. (Incidentally, I’ve just found Green Deane’s Eat The Weeds You Tube channel. I have yet to check it out on my slow, slow internet, but it looks to be very comprehensive.)
Representing the flip side of these arguments is my trusted foraging companion, Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies (1998) by Cattail Bob Seebeck, which indicates that all plants in the Yucca genus are edible, and that the edible parts are “flower buds, flowers, and young fruits” with no mention of removing the pistils or stamens. Similarly, in Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West (1997), Gregory Tilford states regarding yucca that “the flowers of all species are edible and have a delicate, sweet flavor and juicy tenderness that brings the root vegetable jicama to mind.” A quick perusal of the other wild edible plants guides in my possession yielded mixed results; some say to eat the petals; others say to eat the flowers in their entirety.
So here we go again—the deeper I get into my wild plant studies, the more conflicting information I find. Egad.
My Yucca Guidelines May Not Be the Same as Yours
The first time we tried yucca, Gregg dived right in and ate a raw bud even though I warned him not to. From that, he experienced slight discomfort in his throat, similar to what Green Deane describes. So we cook our yucca flowers.
To recap the above arguments, several writers warn not to eat flower pistils and stamens in general, for reasons I have yet to discover. Correll says not to eat yucca pistils and stamens in particular on account of saponin, about which she says “large amounts may be harmful.” Saponin is an ingredient in many commercial foaming agents (Derig and Fuller, 2001). Yuccas contain saponin, which is why native people used yucca roots as soap (Tilford, 1997).
That being said, I have eaten small quantities of wild plants that contain saponin before, the most notable of which is soapberry (Sheperdia canadensis). The key here may be to consume in small quantities, and to avoid over-consumption particularly if you suffer from grave health problems. This is certainly the case with other plants—both wild and domesticated—such as those that contain oxalates (see oxalates section in Reconciling Docks).
As for yucca, Gregg and I usually do eat the pistils and stamens, well-cooked. On at least eight occasions if not more, we have eaten the pistils and stamens of our Colorado yuccas chopped fine and stir-fried or boiled whole in soups, and experienced no ill effects. Yesterday, we ate 21 yucca flowers (11 whole & 10 without pistils/stamens, for culinary reasons) between the two of us, as we had Yucca Flower Scramble for breakfast and Szechwan Cabbage and Yucca Flower Stir Fry for dinner on the same day. Furthermore, I have both allergies and asthma (albeit mild asthma), and the yucca treats me just fine.
I say all this not to induce you to gorge yourself on yucca flowers, stamens, and pistils on your first go-around. Inductive reasoning—where you use one experience to create a general (and oftentimes erroneous) rule to apply to all—is indeed a dangerous proposition. Instead, I’ve put forth two sides of the argument, as well as my own experiences, in order to 1) demonstrate that there is some debate over the edibility of yucca stamens and pistils, 2) share that I myself have yet to resolve it, and 3) impress upon you that you should eat them at your own risk, starting small as with any wild plant and working your way up to larger portions only after careful observation.
Yucca Recipes, for Better or for Worse
Without further ado, then, here are a few recipes I’ve tried recently with our yucca flowers. (This is after a good washing, of course, keeping an eye out for the little buggie wuggies who get up in there at the base of the pistils.) The results were mixed, as you can glean from my reports.
Szechwan Cabbage and Yucca Flower Stir Fry
Unless I’m making soup, I always separate the yucca pistils and stamens from the petals because they cook at different rates. So, for this stir fry, I sautéed finely chopped yucca pistils and stamens, ginger, and onions with cubed tofu and broccoli florets, dribbling Szechwan sauce over it occasionally and mixing until the broccoli began to soften and the tofu began to brown. Then I added sliced red cabbage, soy and Szechwan sauces to taste, and finally, the yucca petals, sautéing until they turned bright green. This I served to Gregg with brown rice.
In my opinion, the stir fry was going great until the end, when I doused it perhaps one too many times in soy and Szechwan. I had pictured a beautiful purple (Asian fusion?) dish punctuated with brown-white tofu cubes and bright green yucca petals (they turn bright green when cooked). Instead, my tofu turned pink, the cabbage got soggy, and the yucca petals got lost in the mix.
The idea was there—it just suffered in the execution. Maybe next time I’ll fry the tofu cubes separately and wait until the very end to add the yucca petals, keeping the whole thing on the dry side while sautéing, and not overdoing it on the sauce.
“What did you think of that stir fry?” I asked Gregg.
“I liked it,” he replied, pretty much because he had to. And then: “It was a little strong. It could be diluted with more brown rice.”
“Did the vegetables get lost?” I pressed.
“Not the yucca. I could taste the yucca when I tried.”
When he tried? Now I know I went overboard with the flavoring.
Yucca Flower Scramble
“Yucca Flower Scramble” is the name Gregg gave to breakfast earlier the same day, which consisted of scrambled egg whites, yucca flower petals (pistils and stamens removed and saved for another dish), and grated high-quality Parmesan cheese.
This would of course work with regular eggs but we are aiming towards a lower cholesterol diet, hence the egg whites—though I’m not sure how well I did with the Parmesan to that end. The eggs came out bright, practically florescent, green because of the 11 yucca flowers full of petals I used, and because everything else was white. This unusual appearance did not spoil the taste, however.
“Mmm! I love Yucca Flower Scramble,” Gregg said, eagerly gobbling it down. Later, he added that the hard cheese eliminated the need for salt. All right, then.
Share Your Recipes
So those are my latest attempts. If anyone out there has any awesome yucca flower recipes of their own to share, I and my 300 monthly readers are dying to hear them.
So please, have your way with the Comment field already. I will approve it by and by if you are not spam!
NOTE: For more information on yucca, please see my 2010 entry, Yucca in My Pantry Again.