January 29th, 2008
Dueling with Spanish Bayonets

Yucca aloifoliaYucca aloifolia–prickly as pins. I did not walk away from the battle unscathed.

The sun came out in Austin over the weekend and so did all the gardeners. Wearing a T-shirt again felt wonderful. I decided to be an ant and focus on cutting back the yucca that graces our front fence. Well, “graces” is hyperbole. What it actually does is flop about and slither over the fence while threatening pedestrians with its needle-sharp tips. For this reason, yuccas are illegal in sidewalk plantings in Austin.
Yucca aloifolia
If you are thinking that this yucca doesn’t exactly add to my garden’s street appeal, then all has gone according to plan. I live in a neighborhood that is basically the parking lot for Palmer Auditorium, Auditorium Shores, and the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. I got tired of cleaning up the dog poop from people who take their dogs for a run around the lake and the cigarette butts and beer cans from tired concert goers hiking back up to their cars. When a friend gave me some Yucca aloifolia (Spanish bayonet), I decided to create a security border.

I planted two plants in the front on Labor Day, 2002. What I hadn’t counted on is how quickly Spanish bayonet grows. It shoots up, becomes top-heavy and then topples over. With all the rain last year, it’s rotting out at ground level. This does not deter the plant at all. It gets on fine without roots because it stores its food supply in its trunk. After it topples, it sends up pups all along the trunk.
Yucca aloifolia
So how does one tackle this mass of needle-sharp bayonets? First, observe the enemy.
Yucca aloifolia
Notice that the top leaves point up. The middle leaves point out. The bottom leaves (often brown but still with deadly tips) point down. You can’t get your hand anywhere near the trunk. In fact, these yucca make fine hideouts for small birds and lizards (one which was very cold and grumpy when I disturbed his sleep today.)

Most importantly, make no sudden moves. Do not lean in to cut a leaf. Move only the hand with your clippers. First, cut off the needle tips at eye level–the ones waiting to poke out your eyes. (A neighbor strolling by me at my labors remarked that he wouldn’t go anywhere near Spanish bayonets without goggles.) Clear a large area of needles. Then start to cut off more of each leaf, getting closer to the trunk. Never move your body or head without first checking for additional needles that may need to be removed before you move closer.
Yucca aloifolia
Once you can reach the trunk with you hand, you can saw through it. Although the yucca stem is fibrous, a small pruning saw can go through it quite quickly as long as you cut perpendicular to the fibers. After the yucca is down, it’s short work to cut off the leaves (which are now pointing up and away from you) from the bottom.
Yucca aloifolia
I cut off all the leaves except for the new ones that are pointing up. What’s left looks like this.
Yucca aloifolia
I’ll cut off most of this stem before I replant.

Although AJM never complains, I imagine that when he sees the dishes and laundry unwashed that he wonders what I do all day. He doesn’t consider time spent in the garden “work” because, he points out, I love gardening. It’s a hobby. It’s a leisure activity. Hmmph!

Well this project was mind-numbing, tedium. Had I not been listening to JapanesePod101, I surely would have gone insane. I worked from 2:30 to 5:30 on Sunday and was back at it again at 9 this morning. I took an hour lunch break at 12:45 and then worked for another three hours. When I was finished there wasn’t much yucca left. All the largest plants had rotted away at the root. I decided just to clean out everything. I even swept the front walk and cut back the wild asters. I saved three plants to replant but cut up most of the rest for recycling (8 bags worth). I trimmed three smaller plants and left them in the front to passalong to another neighbor who walked by. I warned him that they were deadly. By 5:30, I called it quits and came in to watch the news.
Yucca aloifolia

by M Sinclair Stevens

23 Responses to post “Dueling with Spanish Bayonets”

  1. From kate (Canada):

    I am glad I stopped by before heading off to sleep. Now I have this wonderful image of you armed and ready to battle the yucca enemy. (I have a great respect for them, having once carelessly grabbed something from behind a small one. I felt as if I’d been stabbed – well, I guess I had been. It bled like crazy.)

    The idea of creating a defensive zone against littering pedestrians was brilliant. It’s just too bad it grows so quickly …

    How many battle wounds have you suffered in taming the enemy?

    Tomorrow, I think you deserve a rest!!

    No rest for the weary. I have to get some “fun” gardening in tomorrow before another cold front strikes. — mss

  2. From Nancy:

    We had two of those yuccas in our yard when I married ‘Pup. Like you, he’d planted them to discourage some of the neighborhood kids from using his lawn as a short cut to wherever. It took some doing to get rid of them, but I just got tired of risking life and limb when I was gardening in the front yard.

    I’ve read that they used to be used as livestock fencing out west where there wasn’t any trees to build fences with…before barbed wire was invented. It’s also useful to plant under windows if you don’t want your children sneaking out at night, or thieves breaking in. — mss

  3. From Frances, TN:

    HA! We also had sword fights with those horrible spikes as kids. Of course compared to the kids of this era, everything we did was dangerous and illegal. I have vowed to never plant this and discourage others from doing so.

    Frances at Faire Garden

    They aren’t for small gardens. Or for people with small children running around. (Are small children allowed to run around these days?) — mss

  4. From Rachel:

    We have a similar problem with passersby – even though there are fewer attractions in my neighborhood. In my case, we live the perfect distance from a convenience store and a fast food restaurant, so people toss their trash in our yard.

    My husband wants to plant a hedge of agaritas along the front of our yard – same idea, but a bit less spiky. I worry a bit about how we’d pull the trash out of the agarita or the yucca in that case, though…

    Pulling the trash out is a problem. I found the remains of a firecracker. I remember one went off outside on New Year’s Eve. Maybe one of my neighbors really hated these yucca and was trying to blow them up. — mss

  5. From KAT:

    I had–notice HAD–Spanish Rapiers, Yucca horribilis. No, I’m making that up. They are the same as yours but the leaves are juicier and fatter. The leaves weren’t floppy but stiff with hypodermics on the end. Very painful and the ooze was corrosive. They were taller than me. A terrible infestation. But over time I took them out and got rid of them. One pup has dared show its pointy little face, but I pulled it up.

    Sounds like we should put you in charge of coming up with appropriate botanical names. — mss

  6. From Diana - Austin:

    Oh my – what an ant tale! Actually, I don’t know whose blog I read who suggested that she is, in fact, a hornet – with obsessive compulsion about gardening tasks. I think this might qualify!!! That is not gardening or work, that is battle, befitting of combat pay of some sort. Your hubby should reward you some how for not doing the house work and instead going to war with the Spanish Daggers. We had some at our last house and my DH hated them and cursed at them, but they weren’t much in the way so we simply went around them! Much easier than what you just went through — you have my utmost admiration!

    I have perhaps unfairly characterized my husband. He knows very well how hard I work in the garden. I’m not a hornet, though. I’m quite easily distracted and sometimes given to little dances. I think that makes me more like the honey bee that my name suggests. — mss

  7. From Ki (New Jersey):

    Is that your blood on the tip of the yucca? The nasties here are brambles and wild black berry bushes. The thorns are curved back towards the stem so you can easily insert your hand into the bushes but try to pull them out!

    Too bad you can’t make mescal or tequila with the yucca 🙂 But apparently you can eat the flowering stalk and the fruit. This interesting website has a lot of information about the use of yucca as food and material for fiber.The Yuccas and Agaves.

    Gosh no, it’s not my blood. That’s just the natural color of the tips. They feel like poison darts when they sting you. Although I’ve grown these yuccas since 1999, I’ve had a single one of them flower. Everyone else’s in Austin gets flowers, but not me. Thanks for the link. — mss

  8. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Is it really illegal to plant them along the sidewalk?

    I’m with your neighbor who advocates wearing goggles while messing with Spanish bayonets. I’ve considered wearing them when gardening near some of my agaves. You really could poke out an eye if you weren’t careful.

    Some of the yuccas are worth the pain though. I really love the kind that rises on a palm-like stalk and seems to shimmer like a blue sphere in the summer light. Can’t remember what it’s called though. Right now, the only yucca I’m growing is softleaf yucca, which, as the name implies, is less dangerous.

    I have read that it’s part of the weed and overhanging limbs ordinance but I can’t find a reference now. — mss

  9. From Mary Beth - Harlingen:

    I can’t believe all these anti-yucca feelings! They’re a bit dangerous, but so cool looking – and the mockingbirds love to perch in mine. But I will be using the goggle suggestion the next time I need to trim a stalk or two.

    I haven’t removed them completely. My goal is to make it safer for pedestrians while still providing a barrier against dogs. And as I mentioned, they make a great cat-proof hiding places for all sorts of lizards and birds. The trouble is that this particular yucca reproduces so rapidly. I started with two in 2001 and this is not the first time I’ve trimmed them back. — mss

  10. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    Phew, that sounds and looks very much like a mission impossible thingy MSS. But you did a great job!

    I planted a Berberis hedge in my front garden to keep out unwanted humans and doggies. All those razor sharpe thorns keep them all out. See, great minds think alike, even though we used different kind of plants, the thinking behind it was pretty much the same.

    We have to protect our beauties against those who don’t appreciate them. I still plant wildflowers along the front fence, too. But the yucca is the only way I can keep them from being trampled. — mss

  11. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter (Chicagoland):

    An aptly named plant – bayonets indeed!

    My hands still hurt from the pokes and punctures. — mss

  12. From Aiyana (Arizona):

    I’ve had to remove two Yucca recurvifolia (Spanish Dagger) from my front walkway because they were pricking visitors as they came to the door.I didn’t plant these to begin with–they were part of the front landscape when we bought the property-and I would never choose them for myself, and would certainly not place them where the builders did. This is not the climate for them anyway–they get terribly sunburned in summer. Spanish Dagger is “floppier” than Spanish Bayonet and a bit easier to get rid of.

    Almost every yucca I looked up has the common name of Spanish dagger, it seems. A common theme and a cautionary tale. There’s a place for yuccas but it’s not by the front door or the sidewalk. However, as I drove up today, a man was walking along with his child who leapt up on the wall and walked right through my wildflower seedlings. Suddenly I remembered why I planted the Spanish bayonets in the first place. — mss

  13. From Carol:

    Yes, you were very ‘ant-like’ and methodical about trimming out those yucca’s. They sound deadly. I might have been tempted to hire out that job!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    You mean there are people who would do this for money? — mss

  14. From Libby:

    Yowza! Will they come back? I totally can see why you would want them. I gardened for 20 years on Hillmont Street (above B Spgs and Lamar) and the parking and traipsing of people during July 4th, and every other Town Lake event was very annoying. In Mexico of course, people actively plant cactus as anti-burglar fencing. Here, we’re supposed to be more forgiving and benign. In my new house, I definitely think about the prohibitive factor of my yucca plantings on street front as they do have a “f**k you” factor that I applaud.

    We used to be quite close neighbors then, as I live near Barton Springs Rd on the other side of Lamar. Saturday night the street was filled with loud revelers for Carnival and I was wishing I hadn’t cut back the yucca yet. I’m considering replanting with the slower growing but just as formidable agave. — mss

  15. From Annie in Austin:

    Coming to a post late has some advantages – I got to read all these comments along with the post and am having a good chuckle!

    I’ve only grown the ordinary yucca that does well in Illinois – it wasn’t so pointedly armed, but the long fibers in the leaves nearly destroyed a good-sized shredder-chipper.

    MSS – instead of needles, maybe you need a solid wall with a viewing window like that Japanese Garden in England that you visited a few years ago.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Hmm. A solid wall sounds like a good idea. The nice thing about the yucca, though is that they are cheap and prolific. — mss

  16. From M2 in Bothell:

    Now what your picture did not show was the view from a potential guest who might have (had they not known you better), thought they might want to walk up to your front door. You’d lain the yuccas temporarily so that the tops faced the driveway, and I thought that you’d planted them on the front walk. A more “stay away” site I’d never seen!

  17. From Burbank California:

    Riding my bike I felt on top of a Yucca plant and stab me on my wrist and it swell immediately. Know I am trying to find out if they are poisonous but I have not been able to find any information. Have any of you being stab by a Yucca (wild)Plant? Is the swelling normal?

  18. From Ken sarasota FL:

    Nice try with that border. I took a cutting from South Carolina up to Northern Virgina – guess what? It grew just as you said – fast and furious.

    I left Northern Virginia 13 years ago for Florida – I cannot find bayonet down here but I would love to grow some. I guess that I haven’t looked hard enough.

  19. From Anthony Harris:

    I cut lims of my yucca plant, can I re plant them ( roots) without roots ? Can some one help me ?

    yucca parent

  20. From Martha Hollywood FL:

    Thanks for the info on how to cut these devils! They are slowly taking over my yard. The funny thing is I never planted the first one — it just showed up one day. I put them along my chain link fence because someone was jumping over.

  21. From tom:

    I have a large amount growing around an oak tree.I have found useing a real Ax..Takes care of it very easy.
    Then just put in a plastic garbage can.

    I have heard this was used in makeing of Alcohal in past,anyone know details???


    I purchased a golden Spanish dagger…. It’s a beautiful plant… I planted it today in the afternoon…I got stung/stabbed whatever you call it… And it immediately got red and swelled up!!!!! So now it’s 11pm n it’s super red!!! N still swollen!!! Ouch… And it hurts!!! PLEASE!!!…someone outhere ARE THIS POISONIS??? I can’t find any particular info on this specific plant? It’s a GOLDEN SPANISH DAGGER? THANKS!!!

  23. From T Lo, new orleans:

    I planted my yuccas from a couple small ones in 2004. Well mine are growing like wildfire and I love them. Got to be careful around them, but they are unique looking…dont mess with this house!