Yucca!

“Now on the western side of the First World, in a place that later was to become the Land of Sunset, there appeared the Blue Cloud, and opposite it there appeared the Yellow Cloud. Where they came together First Woman was formed, and with her the yellow corn. This ear of corn was also perfect. With First Woman there came the white shell and the turquoise and the yucca.”

The Origin Myths of the Navajo Indians The Creation or Age of Beginning The First World by Aileen O’Bryan

We’re still ridin’ high from this past weekend’s debut of the Bike Scouts of America’s first camping trip. Thanks again to the folks at C.I.C.L.E. for putting it together and this week SurviveLA will review a few of the highlights of the trip starting with the many uses of the wondrous yucca plant.

We were tipped off to the yucca thanks to Christopher Nyerges‘ wild food hike that he led when he met up with the Bike Scouts on Sunday. Nyerges showed us how to weave rope using the fibers of the yucca plant, and showed us the plant’s detergent properties using the dome of the Green Party’s Philip Koebel. In fact, to the Navajo, the yucca plant represets cleanliness and played an important part in many ceremonies.

Yucca is one of those miraculous plants that everyone who has a patch of earth under their control should consider planting, particularly if you live in the Southern California area. SurviveLA likes plants that do not require supplemental irrigation and have multiple uses and the yucca plant, in addition to making rope, can also be used for basket weaving, as a detergent, a white wool dye, a quiver for your arrows, and it also produces edible flowers, seeds, and fruit.

Some important distinctions here. First of all we are not talking about “yuca” which is another name for the cassava plant, a tropical shrub of the spurge family. There are also many species in the yucca family, which even includes the Joshua Tree. Also, don’t confuse yucca plants with agave plants, as the juice of the of the agave leaf is a skin irritant. Agaves tend to have broader leaves in contrast to the spiky leaves of the yucca. Blue agave, incidentally, is the source of tequila.

As Nyerges’ points out in his excellent article about yuccas and agaves, “A Piece of Fiber Could Save Your Life“, the flower stalk of the yucca can be eaten and tastes a bit like asparagus. The flowers, fruit and seed pods are also edible and Nyerges’ article provides some cooking tips.

As part of a edible/useful landscaping scheme yucca plants are attractive and with their sharp points can provide a kind of security barrier against marauding hooligans.

Speaking of hooligans (and bad transitions), we forgot to thank the folks at SoapboxLA for cooking up a batch of rusks that kept us all going during our Bike Scout and edible food huntin’ journey.

Nasturtium “Capers”

Nasturtium grows like a weed here at the SurviveLA compound. We don’t water it, though if we did we might have a larger crop. The nice thing about Nasturtium is that the entire plant is edible – both the leaves and flowers have a strong peppery flavor and the flowers brighten up the Spartan salads we chow down on in the late spring. Once you plant this stuff, at least here in Los Angeles, the thousands of seeds it produces guarantee that you will see it again next year.

Thanks to a tip from our frère et soeur at Terre Vivante, editors of a great book called Keeping Food Fresh, we now have a use for all those Nasturtium seeds. Pick the seeds while they are still green and put them in a jar with a decent white wine vinegar and some dill or other herb. We keep our jar in the refrigerator and wait a few weeks before using them. I actually prefer these substitute capers to the real thing. Some things to note: we grow Nasturtium as an annual plant and it dies off with the summer heat. It can also suffer from aphids towards the end of the growing season. Plant seeds in October and November for a spring harvest.

A Prickly Situation

Today’s post is for clueless white folks as our hermanos y hermanas already know this shit. As we’ve suggested before the rule with landscaping at the Homegrown Evolution compound is, if you gotta water it you gotta be able to eat it. But there are a few miracle plants, well adapted to Southern California’s climate, that are both edible and don’t need watering. One of the most versatile is the prickly pear cactus, of which there are about a dozen varieties all under the Opuntia genus (Family Cactaceae). In the late spring the plant produces new leaves which can be harvested and eaten. Stores and street vendors sell them as “Nopolito”. Nopolito, tastes a bit like a slightly slimy green pepper and can be used in scrambled eggs and mixed with tomatoes and onions in a salsa. During the summer the very tasty fruit matures and can be eaten raw, although the abundant seeds make it a bit of an acquired taste. The fruit can be made into a jam, a drink, or a salad dressing. If forced by the zombie menace into a survival situation, the plant is a good source of water and can even be used to heal wounds.

For nopolitos use only the young leaves and extreme care must be taken when harvesting both leaves and fruit. Wear gloves when harvesting and preparing both the fruit and the nopolitos, as the plant contains thousands of almost invisible barbed spines. Thankfully these spines are easy to remove by dragging a knife across the skin or by using a vegetable peeler. Sometimes I just eat the fruit by cutting it in half, holding it with thick gloves and scooping out the flesh with a spoon.

This is one of those plants that should be everywhere here in Los Angeles. Propagate the plant by cutting off a leaf and sticking it in the ground – it’s simple – no fuss, no pesticides, no watering once established. And note that not all prickly pear varieties produce edible fruit so when you look for cuttings seek out plants that are productive and tasty. It’s the ideal plant for what we call “pirate” gardening, the act of taking over a vacant lot or otherwise abandoned public or semi-public space. Plant a bunch of prickly pear and come back to harvest the nopalitos and fruit.

More info and recipes can be found here and here.