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April 29 native plant sale showcases the “queen of yuccas”

At his farm in Pecos County, Hoven Riley cultivates three yucca species, including Yucca rostrata, the “beaked yucca.” Above, beaked yuccas in bloom in Big Bend National Park.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
At his farm in Pecos County, Hoven Riley cultivates three yucca species, including Yucca rostrata, the “beaked yucca.” Above, beaked yuccas in bloom in Big Bend National Park.

For birds, bees and other pollinators facing stark declines, it's not a moment too soon: Interest in native-plant gardening is booming across the United States. And West Texans eager to cultivate native plants will have a welcome opportunity on Saturday, April 29, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., when the Big Bend Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas holds its spring sale in Alpine.

In addition to other natives, the sale will feature one iconic plant in particular — thanks to a grower who's made a unique commitment to local flora.

Hoven Riley is founder of Big Bend Yucca Company.

“It's so cool,” Riley said, “I love doing it. I sent somebody a small rostrata for their balcony in Brooklyn this week. Apartment number 4.”

On his 240-acre farm near Fort Stockton, Riley cultivates three species of Chihuahuan Desert yuccas, including Yucca rostrata. Known as the “queen of yuccas,” it has smooth, bluish leaves and can grow 15 feet high.

Riley converted his family's former cotton farm into a native-plant operation in 2002. It required patience — it takes eight years for a yucca to grow to 4 feet, when it can be sold. But Riley's long-term investment is paying off — and not just for himself.

For Big Bend residents, native plants have long been hard to find; Riley is helping meet that need. But as Riley's Brooklyn buyer illustrates, the demand for desert plants is widespread. And that can come at a high cost. Cactus poaching has surged across the Southwest. And in West Texas, mature yuccas and ocotillos have been dug up by the thousands to be trucked out and sold. The impacts to the landscape are significant.

Growing from seed is labor-intensive. Riley uses a greenhouse, and spends long hours weeding his yucca fields. But he said buyers recognize the value of his more sustainable approach.

And Riley said he understands why so many find yuccas captivating. They cut a striking profile, and like saguaros, their limbs seem to extend in expressive gestures.

“It's just an iconic symbol,” Riley said, “especially out here on the flats, where it looks like a person from a distance. It's like you're not alone, that you're with somebody you know. There's a connection there somehow, and I think a lot of people feel that.”

Riley will offer small Yucca rostratas at the sale. He said buyers should plant their yuccas as soon as possible. For the first few weeks, the plants should be watered every other day, as they can establish root systems. Then, weekly watering should continue until monsoon rains arrive.

Yuccas are remarkably hardy, but Riley said that even mature plants benefit from periodic watering.

“Just because they can survive through a harsh drought doesn't mean you want your plants to experience that,” he said.

Hard freezes across Texas increased the demand for yuccas — which can withstand temperatures of 20 below zero — and Riley now has 30,000 plants in cultivation.

Farming is always a gamble. But Riley hopes others will take up the work — not only with yuccas, but with other Big Bend natives — to meet the demand both within and beyond West Texas.

“There's so much out there actually,” he said. “I do hope other, younger people who have the means — especially the ability to get out there and work and persevere through a lot of adversity — will do it. It will be rewarded at the end, but it's going to be a hard push.”

The April 29 plant sale will be held at Forever West Texas Realty, at the corner of North 8th Street and West Avenue E in Alpine, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For a plant list, visit npsot.org/big bend. Purchases may be made with cash and check only.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.