The Yucca plant can be found in many locations throughout the American West, and is native to arid places in North America, South America, Central America, and the Carribean. It's very hard to mistake the genus for something else. A bushy clump of sword-shaped spikes promise pain to any creature who would dare touch the white flowers that blossom on a central stalk.
Up on Mesa Verde, many years ago, the ancient Pueblo (according to wikipedia, and tour guides) cultivated the Yucca plant for fibre, and foodstuff. Dried Yucca flowerstalks are also an excellent firestarter for the bow and drill method.
The US Forestry service notes that approximately 40% of the mass of the Yucca leaf is recoverable as fibre. This makes it a prime source for survival cordage. I did some more research after returning home from Colorado, and found that the species of Yucca used in this instructable is Banana Yucca, or Yucca Baccata, a plant of many uses. Yucca Baccata has the strongest internal fibre of all Yucca plants, and is quite common across the American Southwest. Link to Database Entry on Yucca Baccata
I won't go into all the specific uses, but understand that a yucca cord is easy to make with few or no man-made tools in hand. The cord I have made so far is easily 15+ lb breaking strength, for only a few twisted fibres. In the following steps I will explain how to harvest and prepare the fibre for further use. Due to the slow growth rate, I recommend you reserve Yucca cordage for critical applications only.
Disclaimer: None of the Yucca used in this Instructable was harvested where the gathering of wild plants is prohibited.
Step 1: Necessary Tools
To harvest and process Yucca, you will need a high-tech assortment of rocks.
Three or four rocks is all that is necessary.
- A rock with a sharpish edge -- This rock isn't really important. You need this rock to cut the Yucca leaf away from the rest of the plant. It can be replaced with a pocket knife if you so desire.
- A large flat rock -- This rock can be sandstone, heavier the better. It can even just be a handy rock outcropping (I suggest you find a shaded area, unnecessary work in the sun sucks)
- A hard rock with a blunt edge -- This is your scraper, and the most important & durable rock in the set of tools. You want to use an igneous or metamorphic rock. Sedimentary rocks usually aren't going to be hard enough. You can even use your fingernail.
- A smooth, heavy rock -- This is your hammer. You will use it to beat the fibres apart.
Once you have acquired a cutting rock, a work-table rock, a scraping rock, and a hammering rock, you are ready to go cut some Yucca.
Step 2: Finding & Harvesting Yucca
To harvest and identify Yucca you must first find Yucca
Yucca likes to grow in rocky and sunny areas that are mostly dry. You're unlikely to find it in a well-watered area as the roots rot easily in wet soil. Make sure that the taking of plants is not prohibited where you're searching for Yucca.
The plant is an evergreen and likes to spread via animals, judging by the appearance of the seeds. The fruits and seeds are both edible, I feel that they smell similar to an uncooked zucchini when cut open. Since the seeds harden as the fruit ripens, it may be advantageous to treat them as cucurbits, and eat the fruits before they're fully mature, cooking them first. When the rain comes, excreted seeds are often washed downhill--and therefore you should look for Yucca in places where water would naturally flow in occasional rainstorms--such as gullies. As a bonus, you can also use the fruits to bait snares you might make out of Yucca cordage!
Small leafed Yucca ought to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, as they take much more work to harvest and process for a given amount of fibre. They also may be young Yucca. Yucca grow slowly. Don't cut all the leaves off of a Yucca plant, and select leaves from the outside of the plant when you cut, as those will be the oldest leaves. This will probably stress the plants less. There are usually enough Yucca around to harvest enough fibre for limited use.
The best Yucca for fibre harvest are the ones with the longest, largest leaves. Unless you're making textiles, a huge bundle of leaves will be unnecessary as a single Yucca leaf yields quite a bit of useable fibre (40% of the mass of the leaf). To harvest, bend a leaf down so that the base of it lies against a rock, or the ground, and carefully bash it with your cutting rock until the leaf is severed.
Step 3: Breaking the Yucca
Laying your Yucca leaf against your flat, heavy, working stone, bash it with your hammering stone, breaking down the structure of the Yucca leaf. The better you break the Yucca down in this step, the easier the scraping step will be. Be patient. Take your time. Your goal is to beat it down so that it lays flat against your work-surface.
Step 4: Scraping
After breaking the Yucca flat, take your scraping stone and gently scrape away the parts of the plants that aren't fibre. Alternate which side you scrape, and try to continually scrape in the same direction. I like to scrape from the point of the leaf down to the base of the leaf, and then cut off & discard the tip as there are fewer fibers there.
Scrape until you have cleaned almost all the residues off the fibres.
Step 5: Washing and Finishing
The last step in processing the fibres is to wash them repeatedly. You can even let them soak overnight. Scrape them again if necessary. Now however you have some excellent fibres that can be used for fishing lines, snares, or any other task that requires cordage. I would suggest dampening them before you work them into a line as it improves the workability of the material, and allows it to stretch more, so that when it dries and shrinks, the resulting line will hold together very well.
A small 2-ply line, hand-twisted, tests at a break strength exceeding 15 lbs. As few as six individual fibres can be hand twisted into a workable fishing line of about a foot. Based on these figures and experience, a single Yucca leaf will yield approximately 5 feet of workable cord . A single plant with 20-30 leaves could yield as much as 150 feet of thin 2-ply line and could be further braided into stronger, and stronger ropes.
At this point I would like to refer you to the many Instructables related to Wilderness Survival, the Outdoors, and Rope Crafts. Try em with Yucca fibre sometimes. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.
Step 6: Final Notes and Recommendations
For reasons of swelling and stretching, wet your Yucca fibres before twisting them into cordage. When a wet-twisted Yucca cord dries, it shrinks, and your cordage holds together even better. However if you work the fibres dry, they might stretch, expand, and fail, when exposed to moisture.
-- For those of us who don't feel compelled to do without modern tools, the addition of a cheap comb to separate the fibre, and a pocket knife can speed things up significantly.
-- If you harvest Yucca from the wild, please take the time to scatter the seeds about. Yucca takes a while to grow to harvestable, or fruiting, size. Yucca Baccata sometimes grows for eight years before it fruits. There's no reason to wipe out your local wild stocks of Yucca in a mad rush for cordage. If you see yourself using the fibres for crafts, please take the time to cultivate some of this plant in your garden.
-- My interest in making fibre and cordage from natural materials was initially sparked by Phyzome's excellent Instructable: Make Rope Out of Dead Plants with No Tools. Using the hand-twisting method he describes, I was able to create cordage that could easily suffice as a fishing line. There is also a thigh-rolling method for making cordage that should work as well, however when wrapping thin lines, hand twisting seems to work better.
-- For conservation reasons, use Yucca cordage made from wild stock for only critical applications such as fire-making, fishing, or making bows & snares. Other cordage, if available, is preferable for things such as lashing a few sticks together.
I hope you enjoyed this Instructable as much as I enjoyed making it. Now get out there and make something.