Demand – and an illicit market – grows for Texas-native yucca plant

The desert plant takes 10-15 years to grow to the size most buyers want, leading to an illicit underground plant trade.

By Gabriella YbarraJune 24, 2022 3:41 pm,

It’s another dry year in Texas, and as more people adopt xeriscaping, or drought-tolerant landscaping, there’s a growing demand for the Texas-native yucca plant.

But the desert plant, known for its sharp-pointed leaves, takes 10-15 years to grow to the size most buyers want. This has sprouted an illicit underground yucca trade as garden retailers struggle to meet demand, especially in Texas, which lacks regulations on the uprooting of native plants.

Dina Gachman, who has written about the yucca plant for Texas Monthly, shares how one West Texan is trying to relieve some of the demand. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about what’s driving this xeriscaping trend and the demand for the Yucca plant.

Dina Gachman: Europe, Asia, it’s all over. I mean, we’re kind of living it right now with this drought that we’re having. I think we’re all definitely feeling the pain of that. And so, I think it’s becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and people are realizing that the beautiful hydrangeas that you may have loved before aren’t really working for you. So, desert plants like this are just becoming so needed all over the world. And they really grow in southern North America, the Caribbean. The demand is just so high that people are just uprooting them.

Well, there’s the demand side of the equation and then there’s the supply side. How are these plants making it to market?

In different ways. The story that I wrote about, I profiled Hoven Riley, who’s out in West Texas, and he has this incredible sustainable yucca farm. He’s been working for about 20 years, and so, he’s kind of a rare case, I think, that they’re doing it sustainably and really trying to grow beautiful plants for the market. Other times, they are being uprooted and taken to nurseries and you don’t really know where they’re coming from. There are nurseries that have their own plants, but in a lot of cases, they may be dug out from private lands or even public parks.

You describe Hoven as the ‘Yucca whisperer.’ Why was that?

What Hoven is doing requires incredible patience. These are not easy plants to grow. It takes so much time; it takes almost 10 years to get them to the point where somebody would buy it, and he just takes so much care. He grows them all from tissue cultures and seed. He just makes sure that what he is growing isn’t going to rot in two days. So, it’s just really special that he’s not taking a lot of shortcuts. He’s really doing it the right way.

But not everyone is refusing to take shortcuts, to put it mildly. Tell us a little bit about the illicit market here and how Hoven represents such a change from that.

The poaching of desert plants has been a long-time story. It’s in Texas; it’s in Arizona, Nevada, California. It happens in Mexico, definitely. And it’s been going on for a long time. It’s very hard to track. Obviously, there’s not like a yucca patrol out there roving around. So, people either will dig them up illegally or they sometimes will ask private landowners, who may be under the impression of, ‘Yeah, just take them, nobody will care.’ But they’re just so important to the ecosystem. I think Hoven understands that, and he kind of saw that early on growing up.

Could you say a little bit more about how it would harm the ecosystem?

There’s this relationship between yucca and then the yucca moth, and they completely depend on each other. It’s a very interdependent relationship. The yucca moth doesn’t rely on any other plant. So, once the yuccas are gone and the yucca moths don’t have anywhere to lay their eggs, then the animals that feed on the moth, you know, it’s just a whole cycle that can be affected.

You mentioned in your article that this trade has thrived in Texas because of its lax laws. What do you mean by that? Is this the missing yucca patrol that you were referring to?

It’s the missing yucca patrol, which, I don’t know if that will ever happen. But, our state has fines lower than other states. I talked to a couple wardens in West Texas who said they know it’s a problem, they do what they can. But yeah, the fines aren’t very high. It’s very hard to catch people, and our laws are more lax. If a landowner says, ‘come on and take these plants,’ there’s really nothing. There’s no charge.

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