Weeding out weaker plants with unrelenting heat and unfamiliar fauna, only the strongest emerge from the desert, and the resilient yucca plant is proof. Native to the deserts of the southwestern United States and Central America (though they’ve been known to range as far as Canada and parts of the Caribbean) yucca plants prosper in arid and moistureless climates. This resilience doesn’t just make them a great fit for harsh landscapes—it also makes them great houseplants.
“Yucca is actually a genus plant that, believe it or not, is part of the asparagus family,” says Jesse Waldman of Portland-based plant shop, Pistils Nursery. “Not all yucca plants will thrive indoors. Two species that do particularly well, though, are Yucca Guatemalensis and Yucca Elephantipes, which are both more commonly known as yucca cane (or just yucca).”
Loved for their dagger-like leaves and sturdy trunks, yucca plants come off as decidedly quirky when compared to more popular houseplants like fiddle-leaf figs or monsteras. To get the lowdown on these low-maintenance plants, we asked Waldman and Little Leaf expert Kevin Martinson for their fail-proof tips for caring for the desert green.
The General Gist
There are 49 species and 24 sub-species of yucca, which means you’ve probably seen it 100 times before and never knew it. Thanks to their desert roots, yuccas love direct sunlight and can survive without water for long periods of time. In other words, this is a plant you won’t feel guilty about leaving at home when you leave for a two-week vacation.
“Yucca canes prefer to be slightly root-bound in coarse, well-draining soil that’s dense enough to stabilize the heavy trunk,” shares Martinson. “Because they’re extremely drought-tolerant plants, the quickest way to kill a yucca is by overwatering.”
While we’re particularly interested in caring for yucca indoors, these spiky plants most commonly thrive out in nature. And when we say thrive, we mean thrive. “In the wild, these growers can reach 30 feet or higher,” says Martinson.
When grown indoors, yucca plants can soar up to seven feet tall. Since the foliage typically sticks to the top of the trunk, it’ll feel like having a palm tree in your home. “Though the growth habit and height depends on the exact species you have, [yucca plants] will ultimately grow tall, woody trunks, which can eventually reach up to the ceiling (though this would take quite a while),” says Waldman.
Let there be light! Like most desert plants, yuccas love basking in sunlight—and lots of it. Martinson notes that although yuccas can tolerate lower levels of light, they often prefer sunny south-, west-, or east-facing windows where they can catch direct or indirect sunlight. If you notice white or brown splotches beginning to form on the leaves, you’ve been warned that your yucca is getting too much light.
“Direct sun magnified through windows can burn the plant. Be sure to adjust your care regimen accordingly. Less light means the plant will need less water to thrive and will also grow a bit more slowly,” suggests Waldman.
As a general rule for all houseplants, Waldman notes that it’s best to adopt a “less is more” watering approach. The simplest way to know if your green friend is ready for a drink? Stick a finger down into the soil. If the first few inches are totally dry, they’re thirsty. You’ll know you’ve quenched their thirst when you see water coming out of the drainage hole at the base of the pot.
“Plants can typically recover much more readily from the stress of underwatering (drought) than overwatering (root rot),” says Waldman.
When it comes to yucca specifically, you’ll likely end up watering your plant once every two weeks. Though, this will really depend on how much light your plant is getting. “During winter months, watering frequency can be cut in half since the days are shorter and the plant will be receiving less sunlight,” explains Martinson.
Because yucca tends to grow in nature in nutrient-deficient soil, fertilization isn’t usually necessary. However, if you do choose to fertilize, Martinson suggests using a nitrogen-based fertilizer once or twice a year during the growing season (mid-spring). Another option is re-potting regularly. “The fresh soil will provide a nutrient boost to your plant,” adds Waldman.
Tip: “If the plant is too large to re-pot, remove the top two to three inches of the old soil and replace it with a fresh layer,” shares Martinson. The first time you pot your plant, pick a pot that is two to three inches larger in diameter than the plastic grower’s pot that it comes in.
If the lower leaves of your yucca plant are damaged or unsightly (leaves naturally die and turn yellow as the plant grows taller), pruning is a great way to keep your yucca looking fresh. Generally, this can be done by gently pulling off or cutting the base leaves.
“If your yucca blooms (though it’s not super frequent indoors), you’ll want to cut off the flower spike after the blooms have expired. You’ll cut it a few inches from the base of the flower spike,” explains Waldman.
If it’s the height of your yucca that you’re interested in changing, you’ll have to be a touch more careful about the process. “If your yucca is growing too large for your indoor space, you can cut the trunk in half using a handsaw,” explains Martinson. “Re-pot the rooted portion, and then water thoroughly. Continue to care for it as you previously were and eventually new leaves will sprout.”
All in all, yucca is incredibly easy to care for. The only thing to watch out for? Root rot—the telltale sign you’re overwatering. “Root rot is a common issue for yucca cane plants if they’re not receiving adequate light or are in poorly draining soil,” says Martinson.
You also shouldn’t leave your yucca in a dreary, dark corner. “Too little light will also weaken the plant, resulting in poor growth and making them more susceptible to pests,” adds Waldman.
Keep an eye out for bumps, discoloration, webbing, and sticky residue, all of which can indicate you’ve got unwanted creepy crawlers hanging around. “Scale is the most common bug that you might find on your yucca. Be sure to take care of this problem early, as once it’s infested, scale can be difficult to treat,” says Waldman.