If you have been hitting the trails recently, it is likely you have come across a plant with a towering white stalk of flowers, reaching twice your height or more. These impressive inflorescences belong to the Chaparral Yucca, more nobly known as “Our Lord’s Candle”, or Hesperoyucca whipplei in the scientific sense. Classified as an agave in the asparagus family, this sharp-leaved, unusual looking plant hardly resembles something that you would steam and eat with your dinner. Although the asparagus family contains thousands of species, many of which are not edible, the Chaparral yucca does in fact have edible parts. Although it is rarely eaten in the present day, several Native American tribes consumed the rosettes, immature pods, flowering stalks, and flowers. The roots are hardly if not ever consumed, but often mistaken for the “yuca”, or cassava root, a completely unrelated plant that serves as a staple in the diet of many tropical nations.
Chaparral Yucca can be found as far North as Monterey and Fresno Counties, south into Mexico, and east into Arizona. It favors habitats on the warmer side, and is one of the most common species in coastal sage scrub and Chaparral. Additionally it can be found in lower densities in deserts, creosote bush scrub, dry woodlands, and yellow pine forest. This hardy plant is highly tolerant of dry, rocky soils, and can even be spotted springing out of some very craggy, inhospitable looking rock formations. The way in which it juts out from the surrounding vegetation creates a striking contrast that can make for some intriguing hiking scenery. A similar species, the Century Plant, is often confused with the Chaparral Yucca. This relative of the Chaparral Yucca does not live nearly as long as its name suggests, rather only a meager 10-30 years. It can be distinguished from the Chaparral Yucca most easily by its height, as it grows to be much taller: up to twenty-six feet high.