By: Kim Stone
The row of red yuccas in two gallon pots had been in the same location for weeks, and I walked or rode my bike past them dozens of times. Their particularly deep red flowers waved on flexible stems in short arcs or long ones, depending on the wind, and I took casual notice of them just as I do all of the other plants in the retail nursery. Thickened, lance-shaped leaves grew from each pot and then curved outward, allowing room for the meter-high flowering stalks to rise from the center. Because they were perched atop an elevated rock wall, the flowers were effectively at eye level, and hard to miss.
During the heat of the afternoon last Wednesday, an expected lustfulness rose up inside me, and with it, a primal urge to possess these plants—all of them. The flowers, I realized, weren’t just deeper red than most red yuccas, they were the color of blood, starting with bright arterial blood near the center, transitioning to a darker venous color at the tips. I began to guard them, jealously, finding reasons to loiter nearby, waiting for the paycheck that in 48 hours would make them mine.
The truth be told, the native form of red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) can easily reach 6-7 feet across with a daunting thicket of tightly packed leaves, and while it looks great in front of office buildings or along freeways, it is often too large and gangly for home landscapes. The plant that was plucking the heartstrings of my desire is a trademarked cultivar of this species called Brakelights. It not only has much redder flowers, but a mature size of just a third of its parent. Petite, you might say, rather than full figured. It’s exceptionally heat tolerant and cold hardy, too, down to minus 20 degrees, which means it can be grown anywhere in Arizona, from Yuma to Flagstaff. And because it produces few seeds, it can flower for nine months of the year, attracting hummingbirds all the while.
The pulsating red flowers glow—like brake lights—and appear to be backlit even when they’re not. In the shade, the pigments are particularly strong and lucid, resembling crushed cochineal. The species form of red yucca flower is painted raspberry sherbet on the outside, with long yellow tipped stamens surrounded by bone white on the inside, all as if lithely applied with a fine horsehair brush. From a distance, this gives the “red” yucca more of a deep pinkish hue. The color of Brakelights, by contrast, is blood red through and through, like it was plunged wholesale into a pool of thick, pomegranate syrup and hung to dry. Even its stamens have shrunk almost out of sight to help magnify the Big Red effect.
In interest of full disclosure, I had already planted three of the regular red yuccas in my yard, long before I became enamored with the intense beauty and diminutive size of Brakelights. Plant fidelity is not one of my strong points (after all, there is no higher calling in landscape design than to choose the right plant for the right place, even if it takes several tries to get it right), so I unceremoniously dug out the original red yuccas and replaced them in the same location with Brakelights, preserving the older plants in the empty containers.
Is this a case of trading a reliable old standby for the seductive power of a new introduction? What some might call a trophy plant? Perhaps, but now, comparing the two plants side-by-side, I’ve grown a new appreciation for the subtle artistry of the native red yucca flowers, compared to the drunken allure of the Brakelights. Even with its rambunctious vegetative growth, the native red yucca suggests that it sips from a glass, with stately elegance, while the upstart Brakelights brashly chugs from the bottle, not genteel enough to even wipe its chin, but never outgrowing its location, either.
For size, color, and length of flowering alone, Brakelights is a superior choice for most home yards and landscapes, but if space isn’t an issue, the native red yucca still has its charm. In the end, the choice will depend on how thirsty you are.
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