These Yuccas looks exactly like the yuccas on our property. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Yucca* (yucca elata) is a perennial plant that is known as the soap tree. It is native to southwestern United States and grows in abundance on my four-acre property. It’s a pretty plant and puts out a tall stem from the center of a nest of spiky leaves. The spike is laden with edible white flowers that form seed pods when mature. The root is where most of the soapy properties are concentrated. Luckily, the yucca is not endangered so uprooting it is not a problem.
The substance in the roots is known as saponin. A little research informs me that saponins are a subclass of terpenoids, which is the largest class of plant extracts. Saponins are both water and fat soluble, which gives them their soapy properties.
She combs the beautiful hair of her companion using a hairbrush made from stiff grasses.
A Native American’s hair shines. By Edward Curtis courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Did you ever wonder why the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni women had such shiny hair in old pictures? They kept their lustrous hair clean with yucca hair cleanser. I’m calling it hair cleanser because after having processed some roots myself and having used the liquid to clean my own hair I think it would be more accurate to call it that and not call it shampoo. We associate shampoo with voluminous amounts of suds. Hair cleaner made from yucca does not produce a lot of suds. It’s a light sudsy liquid. It’s not thick and syrup-y like modern shampoo. Also, it has a very earthy, natural scent and is not laden with artificial perfume. Because of this I’m going to postulate that it is very good for people with sensitive scalp like mine. I didn’t need conditioner after I used it.
To make yucca shampoo first dig up a yucca root.
Dig up the yucca root. Photo by Renee Benoit.
Then remove the pokey leaves from the root. I used a machete. Lay the yucca plant on a board so your machete doesn’t hit something hard which will dull the blade right away. Wear gloves and hack away. It won’t take long but be careful!
It turns out that the thinnest root on the right yielded the best material. It’s the youngest and softest. Not as fibrous as older larger plants. Photo by Renee Benoit.
Next hose the root with cold water to remove dirt. Then peel or cut the outer skin off the root. A sturdy paring knife and peeler will work.
I used a paring knife to cut away most of the "bark" and a peeler to get it clean. Photo by Renee Benoit.
Now you’ve got the beautiful white inner root. Using a chef knife chop the root into small pieces one-inch square or smaller.
The quarter on the right shows how small I made the pieces. Photo by Renee Benoit.Caption:
Pulverize the pieces to a pulp. I found that a heavy mortar and pestle works best. Mine is made out of granite so it’s heavy and unbreakable. Native Americans use a stone metate. (meh-tah-tee).
The pieces to be mashed on left. The mashed pieces on right. Photo by Renee Benoit.
You can use it right away or dry the pulp and use it later. To dry it place the pulp in a pan and set them out in the sun or bake them in oven at low temperature until they’re is dry and crackly. Store the dried yucca in a cool, dry place.
Soaking these pieces will make a light sudsy liquid. Photo by Renee Benoit.
Make the Hair Cleaner
Add a cup or more of pulp to a basin filled with about 4-5 cups of water. Smoosh the pulp with your hands to release the saponin properties. Do this for about 5 minutes. Then stir vigorously with a wire whip. Do suds form? Smoosh more until it does. Then strain it through a sieve or cheesecloth to remove the pulp. Get as much of the valuable liquid out as you can. I like cheesecloth because I can wring it. Put the leftover pulp in your compost bin.
To wash bend your head over a catch basin and pour the sudsy liquid over your head a cup or two at a time until all your hair is very wet. Scrub it around a bit to get your scalp clean and then rinse with clean water.
When I did this my hair felt clean and I did not use conditioner. After it dried my hair was not at all fly away. To compare, the next time I used modern shampoo I did not apply conditioner and my hair was very static-y and very dry. The air around here has only 5% humidity. Very dry!
I wish that it was not such a laborious process to make yucca hair cleaner because it is much preferable to the over processed and expensive hair products we are now addicted and accustomed to. When I make yucca hair cleaner next time, I am going to make a whole bunch and store it for later use.
*yucca (yuck-a) is NOT yuca (yoo-ka). Yuca can be found in grocery stores and is also known as cassava or malanga. Properly cooked yuca is a foodstuff and to my knowledge cannot be made into shampoo.
Renée Benoit is a writer, artist, ranch caretaker and dedicated do-it-yourselfer who homesteads a small ranch in the southeast corner of Arizona near the Mexican border. Connect with Renée at RL Benoit, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
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