The various species of yucca — some of which are known today as Spanish bayonet, Adam’s-needle, soapweed, datil, whipple or dagger plant — were of prime economic importance to many native tribes of the American Southwest. The sharp-pointed, waxy leaves furnished excellent fibers for weaving. The long flower stalks and creamy white blossoms were used by the Apaches as food. And most important for our purposes, the roots of the yucca provided many native Americans with natural shampoo and natural laundry soap.
Yucca root (called a mole) contains the compound saponin, which has detergent properties and seems to exert a particularly beneficial effect on the protein in animal fiber.
And there’s no reason why you can’t try making yucca soap and yucca shampoo yourself, because the versatile plants — formerly classified as Liliaceae, but more recently placed in the new family Agavaceae — are found in the southwestern (and, to some extent, southeastern) United States, Mexico and the West Indies.
You Can Dig It!
Yucca root can be gathered at any time of the year, provided the ground isn’t frozen. However, since regulations regarding wild plant collection vary, be sure to check your state’s laws before you begin to dig. Then, if there aren’t any restrictions on gathering yuccas in your area, select a small- to medium-sized plant that can be dug up without too much difficulty — even a young bush will yield enough roots for a dozen or so shampoos.
Next, remove all loose dirt with a stiff brush or old rag, and use a small hatchet to chop the roots into manageable (potato-size) pieces. Now, with a sharp paring knife, cut off the hairlike extensions and the outer root covering, being careful to keep the newly exposed surfaces as clean as possible.
Once that’s done, whack the peeled pieces into smaller chunks (about the size of ice cubes) and use a hammer or blender to pulverize these pieces of root into a pulp. When the mush’s color has changed from white to light amber, your new shampoo is ready to be used, dried, or frozen (yucca keeps well when preserved by either of the two methods).
If you’d like to sun-dry the roots, spread the material thinly on a clean surface and leave it in direct sunshine until all of its moisture has evaporated. (When the squeezed pulp is no longer sticky and spongy — but feels sort of crackly — it’s dry enough to be stored.)
For oven drying, on the other hand, just spread a thin layer of pulp on a cookie sheet and bake it at low temperature (anywhere from 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit) for an hour or two. (The drying time will vary from one batch to another, so check it fairly often.) Finally, however you dry your yucca, be sure to store the particles in a cool, airy place.
It’s also possible to freeze a future supply of soap root, and this can be done at any stage in the root’s preparation. Simply seal the pulp in an airtight container, and thaw it before final processing or use.
There is one word of caution concerning yucca shampoo, however: As with any new substance, be sure to do a skin test to check for possible allergic reactions before washing your hair with the pulp. Although anthropologists record that yucca roots were used by native Americans to bathe the entire body (and Walapai mothers even washed their newborns with the suds from a young yucca every day for a week after birth), I once used the root material as a facial cleanser and found that my skin became irritated. But I’ve had no ill effects from shampooing with the substance.
When you’re ready to try your yucca hair wash, make sure your hands (and the sink) are free of grease (or else the roots won’t lather), then run a few inches of water into your basin, add at least a handful of the pulp, and swirl the water around vigorously. (You could — as an alternative — place the pulp and a little water in your blender for a few seconds, and pour the foamy results into the sink.)
Shiny as Silk
After you’ve gotten plenty of suds, fill the sink with water and skim off the floating pulp. (Or, if you don’t use the blender to make suds you can avoid having to strain the water at all, simply by placing the to-be-lathered roots in a cheesecloth bag.) Then just wash and rinse your hair as always. You’ll be pleased with the way this natural cleanser leaves your hair silky, shiny, healthy and clean!