“There is a great deal of century plant of the species which the Mexicans call mescali. The mode of using it is as follows: they make a hole in the ground, fill it in compactly with large firewood which they set on fire, and then throw on top a number of stones until the entire fire is covered but not smothered. When the stones are red hot, they place among them the bud of the plant; this they protect with grass or moistened hay, throwing on top a large quantity of earth, leaving it so for the space of twenty-four hours. The next day they take out the their century plant roasted, or tlatemado as they say [Spanish meaning “roasted”]. It is juicy, sweet, and of a certain vinous flavor; indeed a very good wine can be made from it.”
—Pedro Fages (1769)
Yucca whipplei is abloom right now around the Santa Barbara area and the Tri-county region in general. I ate some fresh yucca for the first time while out in the San Rafael Wilderness for a few nights last year. I snapped off a flower spike and took a bite out of it like it was an apple. I expected it to be disgusting and to have to spit it out immediately, but was surprised that it almost tasted good. I bit off, chewed and swallowed a few more chunks as I walked the trail toward camp.
It had a crunchy consistency somewhat like a mix between jicama and apple and had a sweet flavor. It was not, as I expected, fibrous and stringy but chewed up quite easily between the teeth. It was very close to being something I might actually want to pick and eat on a regular basis, but for a very subtle, bitter aftertaste. Perhaps the degree of bitterness varies between particular yucca plants, I don’t know.
I took the flower spike back to camp and baked it beside the campfire later that night. After it was cooked I cut it open lengthwise and was able to slice out chunks of the heart of the flower spike. It tasted better roasted. It had the same mildly sweet flavor, though when baked the sweetness was slightly intensified, and in addition it took on a distinctively rooty flavor that tasted good. But a trace of bitterness remained. The bitterness was ever so slight but still noticeable. I left the roasted flower spike sitting out by the fire pit that night and the next morning I noticed a rodent had hallowed out and eaten a decent amount of the soft inner core.
The Chumash Indians of the region (Ventureno, Barbareno, Ineseno, Obispeno) ate various parts of the plant including the base of the plant, leaves and flower stalk. They also used yucca for utilitarian purposes such as making cordage from the leaves, tinder from dried flower stalks and at times the points of stiff mature outer leaves were used as needles. Other California Indians such as the Cahuilla ate the fresh flowers raw. In historic times, the early Californios used yucca or what they called mescali for food and, as reported by Pedro Fages, for making wine.
Pedro Fages (b.1734 – 1794), A Historical, Political, and Natural Description of California, Herbert Ingram Priestly, translation, pages 50-53, Ramona, California, Ballena Press (1937).
Jan Timbrook, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California, pages 226-28, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Heyday Books (2007).