The perfect choice for houseplant newbies, yuccas are loved for their architectural shape and easy-going nature. Natives of Mexican and South American desert regions, they create striking focal points, with sprays of spiky dark green leaves sprouting from upright woody stems.
Mature plants may occasionally flower, too, their large heads of fragrant, bell-shaped, white blooms appearing in summer. Setting your plant outside during the warmer months may encourage flower buds to form.
The most popular houseplant is the tender spineless yucca, Yucca elephantipes (syn. Yucca gigantea) which, as the name suggests, has spine-free foliage, unlike some of its close cousins. The Spanish bayonet (Yucca aloifolia) is another tender species sometimes sold as a houseplant but, as you can guess from its common name, this one is to be avoided unless you have plenty of space to bypass its vicious spiny leaves.
Yuccas with variegated leaves, such as the hardy Yucca gloriosa ‘Variegata’, may also tempt you as an indoor plant, but they also feature spiny foliage and are best consigned to a large pot in a sunny area of the garden, out of harm’s way.
Top yucca care tips for healthy plants
Including the spineless yucca in any of your indoor garden ideas is very easy, since it tolerates a wide range of light conditions, from full sun to light shade, and copes well in the dry atmosphere in a modern, heated home.
Tolerating long periods of drought, it's one of the best low maintenance indoor plants you can grow. It won’t balk if left unwatered for a couple of weeks – in fact, it prefers a dry soil and one of the few ways you can kill this stalwart is to water it too much. Choose a large, heavy plant pot for tall specimens, which may become top heavy and topple over in a small container.
1. Give your yucca plant plenty of light
Unlike many plants for the home, this desert native is happy in bright sunshine, and a spot next to a brightly lit window will suit it perfectly, although it can also cope with slightly lower light conditions. Take care to give it plenty of light in winter too, which may mean moving it closer to a window. Alternatively, keep your yuccas as conservatory plants, with a little shading during the months of high summer.
Yuccas also tolerate the dry atmosphere in a warm, heated room, making them ideal plants for bedrooms, living rooms or dining rooms. But avoid growing them as bathroom or kitchen plants where the steamy conditions may encourage fungal diseases to develop on your plant. This sun-lover will also stretch towards the light, so rotate it by 90 degrees every week or two, which will result in more even growth.
2. Repot root-bound yucca plants
One of the most common indoor plant mistakes which can cause all sorts of problems, is allowing your specimen to become root-bound in its pot. The foliage of a root-bound plant may turn pale, as the plant struggles to take up moisture and nutrients.
If the roots are coming out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot and when you tip it out, they look are forming a tight mass, it’s time to repot your plant.
Before doing so, loosen the roots by gently untangling those encircling the outer edges of the root ball. Then repot your plant in a container one size larger than the original one, in a 2:1 mix of soil-based compost and horticultural sand.
3. Water and feed your plant
Watering a yucca is easy but it’s always best to give too little rather than too much, if you’re in any doubt. First, make sure that your plant is in a pot with drainage holes in the base and then slip this into a waterproof container or place it on a saucer. When the top of the compost feels bone dry, take your plant out of its waterproof container and water it over a sink, leaving it on the side to drain before putting it back.
If your plant is too large to do this, water sparingly, checking after an hour or two afterwards that no water is left in the base of the waterproof pot or saucer. As per indoor succulents care, the roots of a yucca plant won't appreciate this excess moisture which may lead to waterlogging and root rot. Reduce watering even further in winter, so that the soil is almost dry.
Feed with a half-strength balanced liquid fertilizer once a month from spring to early fall – do not feed your yucca in winter.
Key problems with yucca plants and how to solve them
Unlike the peace lily, underwatering a yucca is rarely a problem since it is extremely drought tolerant, although keeping it dry for month in summer may result in wilted foliage. In this case, simply water as recommended above and the leaves should recover. Overwatering is more likely to kill your plant, so at the first signs of yellow or limp foliage, check if the compost is soggy and wet and follow the instructions above to dry it out.
This generally trouble-free plant suffers from few pests, although it may be attacked by scale insects, which are fairly common among house plants including the kentia palm and fiddle leaf fig. Check your yucca regularly for the tell-tale signs of these pests, which look like hard little shells covered with a waxy coating. If you cannot wipe them off, try dipping a small paintbrush in methylated spirits and dabbing it gently on the insects to kill them.
In summer, if kept outside, slugs may eat the young foliage of a yucca, but the damage is rarely fatal – you can use slug pellets based on ferric phosphate if slugs threaten to eat large numbers of leaves.
Why is my yucca plant turning yellow?
A few old yellow leaves at the base of a clump is normal, especially in spring, and you can simply cut them off, but if all the foliage suddenly turns yellow and becomes limp, you may have overwatered your plant.
To rescue it, remove it from its container, discard the wet compost and cut off any dead roots, then replace it in a pot with drainage holes in the base in a 2:1 mix of soil-based compost and horticultural sand. Then leave your plant to dry out for a couple of weeks, and only water it again when the top of the compost feels dry.
Remember to keep your plants out of humid conditions so if you're growing it as a bathroom plant consider keeping it elsewhere in the house, for example as an office plant, so it will be in a drier environment.
Yellow leaves can also occur if a yucca is displayed in poor light conditions. This desert plant is adapted to strong sunlight, and while it can tolerate light shade, it will suffer in a gloomy corner, so move it to a brighter spot and it should perk up if light levels were the problem.
How do you propagate a yucca plant?
The easiest way to propagate a yucca is by taking cuttings. Whereas with spider plant propagation you would remove a small 'pup' (mini plant growth) from the mother plant, yuccas require cuttings from a shoot.
In spring, use a clean pair of secateurs to snip off a green shoot close to the main trunk of your yucca. Carefully peel off the outer leaves of your cutting, so that you have a small leaf-free stem at the base.
Fill a clean pot with drainage holes in the bottom with a 2:1 mix of soil-based compost and horticultural sand, and push your cutting into it, so that the white stem is buried but the fan of leaves are exposed above the surface. Water well and set the pot in a warm, sunny position to grow on.
Keep the compost moist but not wet. New growth will start to appear after about two months when the cutting has grown some roots. Keep the young plant in same pot for about a year until you see roots growing through the base, and then move to a larger pot.
Do yucca plants clean the air?
There is little evidence that yucca plants clean the air of toxins, despite many claims online to the contrary. A NASA clean air study (opens in new tab) in 1989 showed that a selection of houseplants removed some common airborne toxins found in the home, but more recent research found that the original experiment’s laboratory conditions skewed the findings and in an average room, you would need a forest of plants to produce a similar effect.
In addition, yucca plants were not included in this study, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are air purifying plants. However, a new UK study by the University of Birmingham (opens in new tab) and the Royal Horticultural Society (opens in new tab) looked at three houseplants (not including yuccas) and the findings suggest that plants can reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – mainly caused by road traffic – by up to 20 per cent.
Since all the plants performed equally well, the researchers concluded that any houseplant may help to reduce levels of this pollutant, but more evidence is needed to back up the claim.
Zia Allaway is a garden book author, editor, and journalist, and writes for a range of gardening and women’s magazines, including Easy Gardens, Homes & Gardens and Livingetc, as well as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph newspapers. She has also written books for the Royal Horticultural Society and Dorling Kindersley publishers, including Eco-Gardening, Compost, Low Maintenance, Practical House Plant Book, Practical Cactus & Succulent Book, Indoor Edible Garden, What Plant Where, and the Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers.
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